Stolen years - Siberian Gulag
Gulag Memories... Survivors Recall 'Stolen Time'
A First Documentary
By Lexington Couple Features Footage Of Interviews,
Siberian Prison Camp Ruins
It all started with a couple of toy cameras.
"I was about 2 years old when I got a Fisher Price camera and it was one of my very favorite toys," said Jennifer Law Young. "I have lots of pictures of me playing with my little plastic camera, and the strange thing is that after I met Bruce I found out he has pictures of him with his little plastic camera, too. We're going to frame them side by side."
The Youngs met on assignment when they were Washington, D.C., photographers, married, moved to Lexington last year and are about to come out with their first documentary film, Stolen Years. It is a 57-minute special that examines the terror of the Stalinist regime and particularly the purges that sent countless people considered to be enemies of the state to the gulag, as the Soviet prison system was known: About 20 million of these people died between 1929 and 1953. The Youngs have captured vivid memories and emotions of I1 of the survivors of Stalin's gulag.
The special will air on PBS (WVPT-Channel 51 or cable Channel 11 ) at 10 p.m. on Thursday, March 4, the day before the 46th anniversary of Josef Stalin's death.
The idea of making the film came to the Youngs after Bruce's 1990 trip to Russia with their friend Mervin Strickler, who made numerous trips to the country in conjunction with his work
JENNIFER LAW YOUNG takes a light reading off gulag survivor
Lev Razgon's face in a Moscow hotel room in February 1996 during the filming of Stolen Years. Razgon was one of the 11 survivors interviewed by the filmmakers.
(staff photo by Claudia Schwab)
for the Federal Aviation Administration. During the 1990 trip, Bruce filmed interviews with some of the early democratic leaders who emerged during the period in the late 1980s known as glasnost when the "whole democratic thing was beginning to break loose," as Bruce described the times.
'Paintings such as Bread Ration for the Dead showing an emaciated man in the barracks holding a piece of bread belonging to his dead neighbor are really graphic depictions of the horrors of camp life’ - Jennifer Law and Bruce Young
But Bruce did more than film interviews - he also filmed whatever else appealed to his artistic eye.
"The most compelling thing about the video Bruce made on that trip was the mass gravesite in a big forest outside Kiev,'' said Jennifer. "People would come place little photos at the wall, and there was this lady crossing herself over these pictures and crying. That was really moving footage, and I thought we should do something with this rather than let it sit on the shelf.
"That's how it all started," Jennifer added. "Ironically, none of that footage is in this film."
In the early 1990s, the Youngs formed their own production company, the Evans-McCan Group. Named for the couple's grandmothers, the company is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating documentaries and multimedia programs. Stolen Time is a co-production of the Evans-McCan Group and the Blackwell Corp. in association with South Carolina Educational Television.
Between 1990 and 1997, the Youngs made six trips to Russia to shoot the film. In film jargon, they were interested in shooting both A-roll footage, the principal subjects like the interviews, .and B-roll footage such as the camps or Russian landscape scenes.
They went on all but one of these trips as part of tour groups they organized to help them get their extensive luggage through customs as well as to avert suspicion.
On each trip the filmmakers traveled with 14 pieces of luggage, about six of which were really heavy, weighing from 70 to 80 pounds, they said. They had a light kit, tripod, TV camera, scanner and more. Traveling with a tour group and guide smoothed the way in many other situations as well.
"The one time we did travel on business instead of tourist visas, we had such a hard time," they said. "They confiscated our camera at customs, locking it my life, the filet of life.”
placing flowers Polyna Myasnikova points to a spot where she wants fellow gulag survivor Peter Demant to place flowers on a map of the Kolyma Region forced labor camps. The map is at a memorial in Magadan in the Russian Far East.
The photo is the still version of a shot taken during the filming of documentary Stolen Years emphasizing the survivors' memories and the symbolic act of placing the flowers in exactly the spot where a specific camp was.
Several of these moments were shown again and again because of their poignancy, said filmmakers Jennifer Law Young and Bruce Young.
(photo by Jennifer Law Young)
Making the film
Jennifer, as the film's producer took care of all the logistical arrangements and the finances, and Bruce, the director, shot the film, but they both had artistic input.
"To show you how well she functioned as a producer, she forbade me to take a still camera so I wouldn't get distracted from the television, which is what I was supposed to be doing," said Bruce.
The Youngs have so many stories about the making of the film that they could easily fill a book, but among the most outstanding is the helicopter trip to a remote Siberian prison camp in June 1996.
"It was a two-hour helicopter ride from anywhere [Magadan in the Russian Far East is the nearest city], and in the last hour and a half we saw no sign of civilization at all," said Jennifer. "I'm terrified of heights, but I was so excited it didn't matter at all. The weird thing was I sensed when we were getting to the camp because I'd had a dream the week before and it was exactly like I'd imagined.
"We could see these weird scratches in the ground, which were test trenches for mines," she said. "It looked like a giant alien had come down and scratched the ground."
The Youngs had visited other camps but wished to film this particular camp.
"A lot of abandoned camps have been stripped for building materials so they're just gone and a lot of structures are made out of wood, which over the years have just rotted away, but this camp was made out of in rock," they said. "The buildings are rock and parts of them are still there, so there were a lot of very visual remains. It was also a notoriously brutal camp."
There were some inhibiting factors about the trip that did not stop the Youngs, nor the 18-person tour group and the two survivors who accompanied them, from going. The camp was in a radioactive area because of a uranium mine, and it was "in a sort of pocket," as Jennifer put it, out of radio contact. That made everyone, including the pilots, very nervous. Because of these factors, they were only allowed 2O minutes on the ground to film.
Aside from memorable experiences like this, what the Youngs remember best are the people they met.
"We've made friends who went on the trips with us and with the people we've interviewed," they said. "We also made friends with people who helped us along the way. These are friendships that will last certainly beyond the making of the film and probably our entire lives."
Not only do the Youngs have photographic skills and goals in ,common but they even share many of the same thoughts. That compatibility has led them to a close and successful working relationship.
"I always say. that, we .complete each other - the fact is: we finish each other's sentences," said Jennifer. "That doesn't mean there's constant interaction, but we are surprisingly parallel."
Asked what might lie ahead for the creative pair, they are not sure at the moment.
"We're really just fascinated with other cultures, comparing how we live with the way other people do "they said. "It's the same reason we became journalists.
"This project has been all consuming and very, very Russian, but we can see in future years picking another country and having a similar fascination. Right now, we're sort of developing an interest in China."
Even if the future may not be certain, one thing about the past is.
"I'm absolutely certain this show would never have been made if the two of us hadn't come together," said Jennifer. , "Neither one of us would have done it on his or her own.”