Sprout Fund Seed Award recipient, Emily Newman, was recently interviewed by the Temporary Art Review about her new project, a film entitled Voyage of the Chelyuskin Club, the story of a ship that sailed from Leningrad to the Arctic only to be stuck in the ice for 3 months before the passengers were rescued, mostly all alive and well.
TAR: You’ve just finished the filming for the Voyage of the Chelyuskin Club, and the remnants of it are all around us. How did you get started working on it? How did you meet the children and seniors who were involved? I’ve heard your amazing stories about your lunchtime meetings at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). Tell me about those, too! How was language a part of the project? I think you said that your meetings with the seniors started out as English Language classes?
Emily Newman: Yes! I initially encountered Russian immigrants at the JCC when I moved to Pittsburgh after five years in Russia and went there to use the pool. I bonded with a few of them and discovered that their experience of their own grandchildren (totally Americanized) was something similar to the experience I had had raising my first child from birth to age five in St. Petersburg and watching him, weirdly, growing into a Russian boy. (This process is documented in the Newman’s 2011 video-film, Mama Wolf.) After a few years of toying with the idea, I made an application and received support from the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Sprout Fund to formally launch an attempt to bridge this cultural/generational gap using art. The JCC was the perfect headquarters for the project as, over the years, it’s become a roost for elderly Russians – $1 lunch for immigrants!
As I found it conclusively impossible to change the routine of these people, I lucked out when the group’s longtime English teacher went south for the winter and I was able to take over his job. Our weekly conversations eased from writing phrases such as “Giant Eagle is overpriced” and “It’s hard to make friends with Americans” on the whiteboard to the topic of Communism – as an ideology, a place and a time – and their grandchildren’s familiarity with it. Had they tried to talk to them about it? How could it be done? Were they willing to try? The answers to all of these questions were “Nyet!”
TAR: When and how the Chelyuskin first become the heart of the project? How did you get the kids involved?
EN: We chanced upon the story of the Chelyuskin in the introduction of a book written by the father of group member, Prima Reitynbarg (age 87, of Homestead). The book was a children’s manual on the topic of public transport–we were considering using it to base our kids activities on and Prima had brought it to the English class to discuss. The book’s introduction was written by one of the pilots of the Chelyuskin rescue mission who her father had personally known. I had never heard of 1933 Chelyuskin expedition so they described it to me in vivid detail and it transpired that two of our group had personally known members of the mission: the expedition leader Otto Shmidt, who Prima knew as a little girl, “I used to sit on his lap and play with his beard,” and radio operator Ernst Krenkl, who had been Yan Fink’s (around age 75, of Bloomfield) boss at the Meteorological Institute in Moscow.
TAR: It seems incredible, that of all places, here in Pittsburgh you should meet two people who had a connection to the rescue mission. So much of what you’re describing is riveting as storytelling. How did you use that with the group?
EN: We decided that this was a story that would provide an opportunity to talk about Communism in a way that they, the Senior Chelyuskins AND the Junior Chelyuskins, could handle.
The kids were gathered–since my studio is small we kept the group small–four in all. Masha and Sasha are Russian kids whose parents emigrated and have neither of them ever been to Russia. Kharen was adopted from a Russian orphanage three years ago and has since forgotten the language. Isaac is my son and was raised in Russia up to the age of five and has been here in Pittsburgh for the last three years. All of the kids in the group are in first and second grade. They all have a patchy sense of being Russian.
The Senior Club resisted the premise of the project; they also refused at first to be photographed or even to have their voices recorded. Prima even asked me if I was a member of the Communist party and wanted to know who was paying for my research. I think she thought that I was agitating for a renewed attempt at Communism in Pittsburgh.
Emily Newman was a Seed Award recipient in 2012 for her Squirrel Hill Kruzhok, an interactive exhibit that was featured at the Mattress Factory in December 2012. The film she is currently working on represents a spiritual continuation of that first Sprout-funded project.