An autobiographical film written, directed and edited by Aleks Rosenberg, Zelimo opens in the Catskills in 1964, where 12-year-old Zelimo Kalinsky, a Russian Jewish immigrant currently wearing camouflaging blackface, is alone in the dark of night performing rituals involving a bow and flaming arrow that will become comprehensible at film’s end. There are flashbacks (Zelimo, as voiceover, speaks to us from the present), which help fuel the film’s circular narrative path. Young Zelimo’s clandestine flight to America from 1959 rural Central Russia costs him both father and older brother, and also gets his mother raped; in 1964, mother and son must separate, she to a girls’ summer camp, where she works, and he to the Jewish boys’ camp where the other boys treat him mercilessly, at one point surrounding him, as he lies on the shower room floor, and giving him the “golden shower” by mass urinating on him. Hector, the young Cuban athletic director, however, mentors the boy, teaching him to look down the barrel of antagonists and, being tough, say, “Up yours.”
What this woman and boy suffered in Soviet Russia is apt preparation for what they must face in an hysterically anti-Communist, anti-Semitic United States; Zelimo still feels “marked,” as Jews were made to feel in Russia. Rosenberg isn’t preachy; he allows us to infer from the torment with which the boys target Zelimo that they themselves have felt plentifully targeted for being Jewish in an intolerant culture and country. Besides, Zelimo is “the new boy”; he’s in for it. But we also get a clear sense of how important assimilation is to these boys; the barracks bully hordes his Superman comics, and Zelimo dreams of going to New York City to become a real American.
Rosenberg’s film is expressionistic, lively, funny, poignant.
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