The Dream Before the Dream
Stretched along the rails of a steam liner, a huddled mass of Europeans gaze with awe and wonder at the Statue of Liberty as it sweeps majestically into frame. This scene, and its many variations, has become a cinematic staple in films depicting the immigrant experience in America (Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, to name just two).
It is a scene whose like will not be found in We Are Going to America. Rather than depicting hopeful families surging down the gangplank to set foot upon Ellis Island, this film begins in a Jewish cemetery, as its protagonist—an 11-year-old Russian Jewish boy named Motl (Dima Davydov)—is being pinned down by ruffians who smear lard in his face. This scene signals an abrupt departure from the typical immigrant tale’s beginning.
This departure has to do largely with the “we” in We Are Going to America: Motl and his extended family, who have decided to travel to America after the his father, a cantor, dies. The film begins as their journey begins, with the family loading its lone possession, a feather mattress, into a horse-drawn carriage. Despite their meager state, the family is full of hope for the new life that awaits them. Warned to hide his money by local villagers, Motl’s elder brother Elya (Semyon Strugachyov) responds, “In America, there are no thieves.”
If the characters in We Are Going to America look forward with unflagging optimism, they also look back with bitterness and disillusion. In addition to the father’s death, poverty and pogroms have also contributed to their decisions to leave their homeland. The film’s focus on the Jewish experience of emigration repeatedly emphasizes anti-Semitism as a catalyst for the historical and perpetual state of Jewish emigration. At one point, Elya rhetorically asks, “They don’t let people with tearstained eyes into America. Where are the Jews supposed to get other eyes?”
But while We Are Going to America speaks to the historical hardships facing Jews in Russia, its political commentary is cut short in favor of a more disjointed, at times surreal, narrative thread. For first-time director Efim Gribov, the family’s destination is less important than the aesthetics of their journey. Much of the film, in fact, takes place on the train the family boards for the Russian border. This setting provides ample opportunity for Gribov to depict the mingling of shadows and light: in one scene, the train swiftly passes a stand of trees that cast fragmented shadows in the setting sun. In addition to this chiaroscuro effect, steam from the train’s engine envelopes characters, at times nearly obliterating their faces with a ghostly white glow. Gribov also uses mirrors and reflections to superimpose characters’ faces over other images: a close-up of Motl pulls back to reveal his reflection in a hotel window as he looks in on fellow immigrants at dinner. These two images merge and blur, as the camera shifts its focus from one to the other.
Such visual effects work to break the continuity of a particular shot, while the scenes themselves are pieced together in a similarly disjointed fashion. The film is as shiftless and uprooted as the characters it portrays, creating a sense of the chaos and confusion that characterizes the experience of immigration. Forced to leave the train while their documents are being processed, Motl and his family find refuge in a local hotel. There, Motl encounters a self-described “witch,” adorned with a large bird nest upon her head. Live birds occupy the nest, mirroring Motl’s own pet bird, frequently shown clinging to the top of his wool cap. The witch gives Motl a powder from an envelope, which he proceeds to lick from her outstretched palm.
The specific relation of this scene to the family’s journey is never made clear. Amid the startling, steam-filled, and shadowy imagery, however, it adds to the detached and dream-like tone of the film. Such a random-seeming occurrence emphasizes the film’s focus on the family’s disjointed limbo.
With this focus, We Are Going to America owes much more to surrealist filmmakers like Luis Bunuel and Frederico Fellini than to Coppola and Leone. As images distort and blur onscreen, events and emotions become increasingly difficult to pin down. We Are Going to America offers a fragmented and personal interpretation of the immigrants’ experiences. Rather than depicting yet another conventional and chronological pursuit of the “American Dream,” the film reveals the troubled, dream-like state affecting those who leave their known lives in order to engage in such a pursuit.