Do as I say, and as I do

A playwright who died at Stalin's hand inspires a Ukrainian revolution

In 1937, Joseph Stalin's soldiers marched more than a thousand writers, philosophers, and artists onto a barge in the White Sea, ordered them to remove their clothes, shot each one, and dumped their bodies into the water. Among the murdered was Les Korbas, a revolutionary theater director from Kiev, Ukraine, who had formed the experimental Berezil Artistic Association and refused to make theatrical propaganda for the Soviet Communist Party, instead staging brazen satires of power and corruption. "Permit me to be a revolutionary," Korbas said. "It is my right to struggle ... Permit me to live." Stalin declined, and with his Great Purge dispensed of those like Korbas who dared voice dissent. (During this time, Stalin also murdered 7 million people in the Ukraine by routing the region's plentiful harvest).

Fifty years later, unearthed by Mikhail Gorbachev's new policy of glasnost ("openness"), a copy of Korbas' diary found its way into the hands of Virlana Tkacz, a student of Ukrainian Studies at Harvard University. Inspired, Tkacz developed a stage play entitled Light From the East that celebrated Korbas' vision of truth and independence. Tkacz soon received an offer from the Ukrainian Parliament to bring the play to the Ukraine - still a subservient republic of the Soviet Union - where American actors from New York's La Mama Experimental Theater would collaborate with Ukrainian actors in an historic alliance. It was 1991. The Cold War was ending and Gorbachev was close to signing a momentous treaty granting independence to the Soviet republics.

The stage was set, and in more ways than one.

Into this state of affairs stepped Amy Grappell, one of the actors to perform in the play. An undergrad at New York University film school, Grappell lugged a camera along to catch on film the first American/ Ukrainian cultural exchange theater project in history. She caught a lot more. On August 19, 1991, three days before Light From the East was to open and one day before Gorbachev was to sign the treaty decentralizing the Soviet Union, conservatives in the Soviet leadership kidnapped Gorbachev and attempted to seize power in Moscow, thereby plunging the Ukraine into turmoil. The actors continued rehearsing and Grappell kept filming. The result is an eponymous documentary premiering this week at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival that captures an amazing confluence of human themes and historic events.

Light from the East

Dir. Amy Grappell (NR)
"It was a moment in history when the Ukrainian people knew if they didn't fight for their lives, they would lose the hope of moving toward a democratic society," says Grappell.

The film presents a series of indelible moments, from the onset of Grappell's shock and anxiety on the morning of the takeover ("Does this happen often?" she asks a Ukrainian friend) to the eventual defeat of the coup and the Ukraine's declaration of independence only a few moments before the play's final performance. For the American actors, this triumphant outcome - brought about by the resolve of the Ukrainian people - highlighted their own resolve to remain in the Ukraine and celebrate the defiance of Korbas despite the danger of political unrest. The spirit of the playwright helped them along. "We were inspired by Korbas," says Grappell. "The story we were enacting began to live in us."

It was an exemplar of Korbas' ultimate ambitions as an artist. "For art to exist," he said, "each person must have the freedom to look at the world and tell the truth as he sees it."

By Brian Chasnoff

Scroll to read more Movie Reviews & News articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.