From the Heart of Odessa
Documentary by André Schreuders
60 minutes • Color • Stereo • 2007
Music : Alec Kopyt
Alec Kopyt, a musician from Amsterdam returns to Moldavanka – the former Jewish neighbourhood of Odessa – his place of birth and the cradle of old-time Russian Mafia songs (Blatnyak). He is looking for musicians to play together these songs in the restaurant of an old friend. While strolling along the picturesque yards of the ruinous slums, we meet colourful Odesits who resemble the ancient heroes of the street songs we hear. A touching portrait of a neibourhood, its music and performers.
The film is a musical wandering to the cradle of the old Odessa bandit songs. With their humoristic and brutal texts and fiery melodies the Jewish bandit songs reflect the soul of Odessa.
“In Odessa you are not born a Jew, you become one”, says Ivan, one of the people we meet by accident when we follow the pensioner Vladimir on his stroll along the yards of Moldavanka.
All Odessits seam ready to sing a little refrain in front of the camera.
But Alec Kopyt performs most music. The protagonist is born in Odessa but currently living in Amsterdam. An old friend invites him to come back to Odessa to play in his new opened restaurant. Alec has to find the right musicians to play with. This search for musicians in fact brings him back to the places he left some 25 years ago.
With Alec we walk in the characteristic yards of Moldavanka where he is born. Beautiful old places but without water and toilets and with a harsh social structure that made life not too easy for a Jewish boy. We also visit the butcher hall at the market where his father used to work. There we meet Yuri, a former colleague of his father and uncle, who above the bloody meet is teaching us about the history of Holland. At the same time we witness the cutting into pieces of a cow’s head.
The search for the heart of Odessa goes deeper and deeper in the back yards. We see that the brutal world that appears in the song texts of the 1920’s is still there. We are entering the world of the street kids sniffing glue and torturing little dogs. Some of the yards are completely ruined and nobody seems to care about it. In one of the yards we find ourselves in an illegal shop of ‘moonshine’ the popular home made vodka. There the pensioner Vladimir finally succeeds to seduce the filmmaker to drink 100 grams with him. We meet old granny Vera who is not so much interested in the camera but wants the filmmaker to help her fixing the light. And with tramp Sacha we visit his ‘home’ in a totally dark moistly basement, where he tells us that he saw the Light.
Finally Alec has found four strong musicians to accompany him to play in the joint. Their passionate rehearsals already let us feel the heart of the music. But a concert we will never see. When they gather and go to the place where the joint should be, they just find an empty spot with a metal fence.
Afterwards Alec sits at home in Amsterdam, just like in the beginning of the film. He plays his favourite song: the melancholic “Dark nights”, as if he never left his home and all we heard and saw was just a private concert in his living room.
About the project
From the heart of Odessa looks like an adventurous tour through the backsides of Odessa. And it was. The whole project in fact was an adventure. We worked with a very low budget, completely independent from producers or TV companies. We decided that independence and speed for this project would be more important, than a big budget and thorough investigations on the subject. We chose it to be more important that the film would catch the atmosphere of Odessa street-life, than to give a lot of theoretical or historical stories.
This free and independent attitude is felt all the time in the film. The film breathes the joy of filmmaking. Finding special people and astonishing situations by accident, by fate or sometimes half organised. Being surprised about the beauty and richness of people even if their material wealth is very low. A lot of the situations that are seen in the documentary never would have happened if the director/cameraman wouldn’t have been alone there in his search. Because of the one to one contact between cameraman and personages and the modest way of using the camera in this contact, a pure and equal relation developed. So the personages are not becoming an object, and the audience feels it’s taking part in this tour.
For the main person, Alec Kopyt, it was the first return to his hometown after 15 years, the first time after the soviet times. That was also an adventure. Especially because his memories were not positive at all, and the stories he had heard about the current situation in no way encouraged him to go there, if it wasn’t for this film. So for him there were a lot of personal moments. Some very pleasant, some sad, some painful. We decided not to focus on this side of the visit, not to make the person of Alec the subject of the film. Our subject is the music, the Odessa street songs. Alec, is important as our guide and interpreter, but his voice tells us enough to understand he is a man with a past.
From the heart of Odessa is the first hour length documentary of director Andre Schreuders. His earlier works are mainly poetic and philosophical shorts. For some of his films he works together with a rather big crew. But this film he created almost alone, being director, cameraman and editor. This makes it a personal film, reflecting the directors’ ideas of aesthetics, but even more his attitude towards life.
Produced by AS Film.
World Sales : JMT Films Distribution.
Screening at EasternXpress festival 2009