CIMMfest 09: Black Eyes (Zwarte Ogen, 2008)

Director: Jan Bosdriesz

CIMMfest: The Chicago Movies and Music Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It seems the older many of us get, the more we want to understand our own past. Most older people have become orphans, and like young orphans or adopted children, have to follow a trail of crumbs, searching out the rapidly vanishing family and friends of family to discover those hidden moments that might make the remainder of life more coherent and settled. Many Europeans who were children around World War II suffered cataclysmic dislocations in their everyday lives. Jan Bosdriesz, the Dutch director of Black Eyes, was born in 1941. His quest to discover something about his father led him throughout Europe and into lives he never expected to encounter.

The film opens with a slow, close-up pan of a shelf in Bosdriesz’s flat in Amsterdam. On the shelf are a variety of objects Bosdriesz collected in his travels and from his relatives—a flat iron, a reed dildo some Thai workers gave him when he didn’t want to visit a brothel, some woven sandals from South America. Bosdriesz muses that some of these objects will have utility after his death, but that most are meaningful only because of his associations with them; they likely will end up in the rubbish when he is no longer around to invest them with worth. At the center of his collection are some 78s his father listened to frequently, with enthusiasm. The apple of his father’s listening ear was Pyotr Leshchenko, a singer of songs that spanned the range of human emotions. Bosdriesz decided to pursue Leshchenko’s life and career as a way to understand his father better.

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Leshchenko was born in 1898 in Ukraine, a citizen of the Russian Empire. During World War I, his parents moved the family to Kishinev, now part of Moldavia. When borders changed, as they do with confusing frequency in Europe, Leshchenko found himself a citizen of Romania. After a short career as a dancer, he started his singing career. His passionate style in interpreting songs of love and loss, particularly the songs of Latvian composer Oskar Strok, brought him great success. But when World War II ended, Leshchenko’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. His songs were considered counterrevolutionary in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and his recordings were banned. Nonetheless, under the sponsorship of a powerful Russian fan, he spent a triumphal few years in Odessa, where he had many fans for his Russian-language singing, and later returned to Romania, a country that had backed Germany and that looked at Russians with suspicion. In 1951, he was arrested and disappeared into the Romanian gulag, where his story abruptly ends.

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Bosdriesz travels through Eastern Europe trying to trace anyone who knew Leshchenko and what might have happened to him. He meets a small woman with a lovely, smiling face who married Leshchenko’s son Igor. She never met her father-in-law and, in fact, divorced Igor only a few years into their marriage. Yet, like Bosdriesz, she is looking back and feeling a longing to know this man whose pictures show her what emotion he must have had. She is touched by her familial closeness to him and how she imagines he might have been. “I’m 83,” she says. “I’ll meet him soon.” Perhaps she has listened to his interpretation of Rezső Seress’ “Gloomy Sunday,” which has the lyric: “Little white flowers will never awaken you, Not where the dark coach of sorrow has taken you, Angels have no thought of ever returning you, Would they be angry if I thought of joining you.”

Another person Bosdriesz interviews is Alla Bayanova, a 93-year-old singer who worked with Leshchenko. Unfortunately, the diva’s memory is as small as her voice is still lovely. Her helper, Natasha, tries to coax Ms. Bayanova’s first encounter with Leshchenko out of her, but that time has been wiped clean. In frustration, she twice breaks into song—truly the most articulate she can be until she pulls out a few photographs, one of which shows Leshchenko and his gorgeous second wife Vera surrounded by preening Russian soldiers. Vera and Pyotr were the “It” couple of Odessa, and now we can see why.

Another interviewee shows how Leshchenko’s banned records made their way to the admiring Russian audiences of Odessa and elsewhere. He pulls out a stack of disks made out of X-ray film with the tracks of Leshchenko’s songs etched into them. Bosdriesz places the disk of “Black Eyes” on a turntable, the image of ribs and a sternum spinning as Leshchenko’s voice rings out plaintively.

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Bosdriesz’s journey of discovery leads him back to The Netherlands, where he tries to unravel the mystery of his mother’s first marriage to Jan Bosdriesz Sr., who died of typhoid in a work camp when Bosdriesz Jr. was only 15 months old. He interviews his sisters; looks at his mother’s journals; reads Bosdriesz Sr.’s poetry from prison, which his mother had copied meticulously into notebooks from letters he sent; and interviews people who had knowledge of the pacifist schoolteacher’s years in different Nazi camps. The father he never knew was an idealist, refusing to free himself with a couple of white lies.

Black Eyes is an odd document. It comes alive whenever Leshchenko and his music are in the forefront. Unfortunately, because his story after his arrest is unknown, the thread of that narrative goes nowhere, though it’s hard to care as long as Bosdriesz plies us with photos and music. What is more problematic is Bosdriesz’s search for his own meaning. We learn a lot about his namesake father, who apparently was not his biological father, but almost nothing about the man he calls his real father. Does the story of his mother’s first husband really shed light on his own history? I didn’t see the connection. In addition, Bosdriesz and Leshchenko’s stories are woven together without much skill or logic, leaving me confused for a lot of the film’s running time.

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What Bosdriesz lacks in narrative force, he makes up for in visual intelligence. He juxtaposes images flawlessly, for example, zeroing in on a Russian officer listening with conviction and tear-filled eyes to the music and lyrics at a Russian Leshchenko festival—the perfect picture of the Russian spirit that helps us understand the deep connection Leshchenko made with the Russian people. He films a number of elderly women, and I simply could not get over how serenely beautiful and alive they were, the most stunning elderly women I’ve ever seen on screen. One of them is shown dancing like a young girl in love; it’s breathtaking to me. Images of Lenin, of drapes flapping in the wind, of shrouded cityscapes and abandoned work camps reveal Bosdriesz’s perfect eye and deep feeling. Whenever I felt particularly lost, I retreated into his wordless world and found coherence.

The film is available on DVD. I encourage people with a love of history, beauty, and music to experience this small treasure from a little-known corner of documentary cinema.

The trailer I had has been pulled from the Internet. You can view a short clip here (Dutch narration, no subtitles).

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 10:19 am

    I will put it on my Netflix queue. Nice piece, Marilyn.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 10:22 am

    Arggghhhh … not on Netflix. What a bitch.

  • fox spoke:
    11th/03/2009 to 12:11 am

    I read that lyric to “Gloomy Sunday” about three times. It’s horribly depressing. I had to read it three times b/c it was so odd to hear a lyric so bleak. Even in the darkest American pop songs you wouldn’t hear such hopelessness.
    Then I looked up the song on Wikipedia and it said it’s sometimes none as “The Hungarian Suicide Song”. Yikes!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/03/2009 to 8:12 am

    Fox – The lyric has been changed and adapted depending on the singer. Paul Robeson’s is the most depressing in English. What I love about the song is that the music is so beautiful and melancholy, a perfect fit for the lyrics. It’s haunting, and I think that’s why so many singers and musicians have covered the song. I was surprised at the variety on YouTube.

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