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Stuart Urban on “Tovarisch”: Presto, the Elements of a Movie were There! (Watch It Now)

Stuart Urban on "Tovarisch": Presto, the Elements of a Movie were There! (Watch It Now)

At the age of thirteen in 1972, Stuart Urban became the youngest director to have a film shown at Cannes. As an adult, Urban became a successful director of both features and documentary films, winning multiple British Academy Awards. I sat down with Urban to discuss his long gestating documentary, “Tovarisch I Am Not Dead” – available in its entirety at the bottom of this page courtesy of SnagFilms, about his father Garri, a survivor of both the Gulag and the Holocaust.

“Tovarisch I Am Not Dead”
Director: Stuart Urban
Executive Producers: Alan Jay, Mark Pegg
Producer: Stuart Urban
Co-Producer: Emily Harris
Cinematography: Ben Nicolosi-Endo, Shay Peleg
Editors: Emily Harris
Music: Dirk Campbell
85 Minutes

On the idea for “Tovarisch”…

Having a father who was a great adventurer and escaper, having got through both the Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag, was both a blessing and a curse. It marked him and the family, but made him unique. I had planned a major drama feature on him with BBC Films, but could never find either the right actor or enough funding. So the thought occurred – just present the real man in a documentary!

…on his approach to filmmaking…

The film emerged from the mass of video diaries and research as we travelled round his places of imprisonment, escape, and evasion in the former Soviet Union, where his family had been killed, how he searched for any survivors for decades, and so on. But because my father wanted to be in control of his own identity and image, I could not really ever finish the film that was made to celebrate his life and character until, sadly, he had died, when various secrets begun to emerge and mysteries deepen.

…on the challenges of promoting this kind of film…

Despite the growth in “first person” film-making among feature docs, and despite the fact that I had already won two British Academy awards as a director, absolutely no public bodies or TV channels were in the slightest bit interested. Hence I made use of video diaries shot with development funds for the main drama, on which I retained copyright. Hey presto, the elements of a movie were there.

…on audience reaction…

It works as a universal story of a son discovering his father, to which everyone can relate. It also happens to be about a unique survivor, and thus of interest to anyone who admires survivors! Many critics also found unexpected humour and vitality in a film that deals with such dark material.

…on sources of inspiration…

I enjoyed “Capturing the Friedmans” as a documentary whose mysteries remained defiantly unresolved. “Europa, Europa” is a brilliantly told movie of a young Jew surviving Nazism and Communism – another one that deserved its Oscar nod. And some obvious classics like “Shoah,” Marcel Ophuls’s documentaries…

…and on future projects

Right now my attentions are split between two wildly differing films: “The Golem,” which is to be the first feature drama made in Yiddish for over 60 years, a Jewish-Gothic folk tale starring Topol (from “Fiddler on the Roof”); and “Babes of Baghdad,” a low budget comedy musical about a mythical club in the Green Zone. Imagine “Cabaret,” but in Baghdad :)

The film is available its entirety on Snagfilms:

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