Here’s a fantastic movie that, even if it gets picked up for wide distribution, will be doomed. Even if the film gets an ideal release time (it’s about Holocaust, gotta be a Christmas release, for all the award considerations), and the best marketing team to promote it, I’m afraid it will bomb. Well, how would you promote a Holocaust movie that’s really not about Holocaust? How do you bring people into theaters if the book is based on a non-linear, rather lyrical novel of a Canadian writer? Don’t you know if it doesn’t rhyme with ‘Larry Shmoetter’ it won’t sell, paper or film. How do you explain to people that wars have affected more lives than were listed as mere casualties, and how do you illuminate that those who don’t know their history will repeat it, hence other wars, other bloodshed. Regardless of whether the affected people speak Yiddish or Tutsi or Russian or Chinese. The stories of survival are universal, and Fugitive Pieces demonstrates it with style, pride and a lot of local history.
You probably won’t have much success bringing people to this film, and that’s why this Toronto Film Festival opener for 2007 is so important. For a movie with so much appeal, to be seen (and embraced) by a small crowd of 1500, it might just be enough. The word of mouth could bring in other people, not only of Jewish or Greek descent, not only immigrants, but also those who take in immigrants. It really is about all of us, how we deal with loss, how we deal with survival. And yes, at the core, it’s about survival’s guilt of those who escaped Nazi terrors during WWII. For a movie that centers on that theme, and spins a flash-forward, flashback story across Europe, in Canada, spanning 3-4 decades, this film is pretty easy to follow, and easy to absorb.
The film is not a typical ‘Holocaust’, by the numbers production. It has little ‘traditional’ Nazi violence. In fact, there are only two scenes that I can recall. It deals with no politics, military, or war efforts. It’s about a Jewish boy Jacob (Robbie Kay) who is saved – by sheer accident – by a Greek archeologist Athos (Rade Serbedzija) after his family is taken away during a pogrom. The two of them leave central Europe for Greece, where they exist for a short while on the outskirts of the war, just barely affected by it. They later emigrate to Canada (teaching position for Athos), and try to make new roots here. The rest of the film deals with their time here, long after the war, jumping back and forth in time. They both deal with heavy, impossible questions: why did I survive, and my parents/friends/village neighbors did not? What do I have that’s so special? Why was I spared? Both men have escaped death, but faced tragedy that affected them deeply. Can they exist together? Can they exist with other people? Can they connect with people who weren’t anywhere near that hell hole that was Eastern Europe during WWII? Can Canadians ‘get’ them? Did they get far enough from the memories?
There are no easy answers here – this is not a movie of the week. Both men keep searching for meaningful, sound relationships, and at the same time are trying to plant roots, to settle. Where? And on what terms? As lost, damaged souls, or as fully-developed members of a different, hopefully, better society. Both Jacob and Athos approach their survival instinctively, often acting/speaking on impulse, initiating and ending relationships on the spot, withdrawing and pulling themselves by force out of darkness. The film is wonderful at showing this relationship – with visual cues, soundtrack, and faces. There are many characters in this movie – a lot of them, women – in different archetypal roles, and their eyes, their silent lips manage to say so much, and convey so much emotion.
Director Jeremy Podeswa took a difficult book by Anne Michaels, assembled an amazing screenplay, and played it straight from beginning to end. There’s no moralizing about pogroms (since that part was witnessed by Jacob as a young boy, it makes sense that for him (and through his eyes), it’s simply loss, nothing else. There’s no analysis Jacob’s or Athos’ life and immigration. They’re accepted here, in Canada, as many others have been. You got a skill, you will be useful to the university, you belong here. Simple, elegant approach. And even in their personal relationships, very little is SAID about their experiences. Their women TRY to reach them, to feel or share their haunting, but they do not talk about it. There’s no ‘I could have saved more’ speech that Schindler would have said. There’s simply no need to say it – a lot is conveyed by their appearance, in their face, in their eyes,
Fugitive Pieces is not a typical Holocaust film. It goes beyond a single race of people, and goes beyond a continent. It spans 3, possibly 4 generations and tries to show how they would exist together, given their loss. Would the film be any less powerful if it was about Rwanda? How about Sudan? Maybe Ski Lanka? I think it would have been just as powerful. I believe we’re all immigrants. Whatever the reason for people’s displacement is, and whatever casualties they suffer, at the core of it is loss, crippling, blinding loss. Sometimes you lose school buddies, sometimes you lose a house, and sometimes you lose your entire family. The film shows us how these lonely souls try to replace their loss, on what terms, and at what pace. It’s a universal tale, delivered superbly, with fantastic performances and a powerful script.
You probably will not find it in theaters. But definitely, you should try to see it. Not an easy film, but what illumination does it bring in the end!