“A Boomerang of Goodness”: Akhtem Seitablaev talks about his new film “A Prayer of Strangers”

Akhtem Seitablaev

We are speaking with the director Akhtem Seitablaev about his new film A Prayer of Strangers.

At the beginning of the conversation we are introduced to Saide, the main character of the film.

Akhtem Seitablaev:  She is a Crimean Tatar. She is the heroine of this story, which is practically a documentary. I will explain “practically” later. She is the one who, during the Second World War in the city of Bakhchysarai, in Crimea, saved over ninety children from death, the majority of whom were Jewish. The uniqueness of the story lies in the fact that she saved them twice.

First, she saved them from the Nazis, having taught them how to be Crimean Tatars—if one can put it this way. She gave each of them a Crimean Tatar name, and also invented new biographies for them: where they were from, who their parents were, how they had ended up here. And, realizing almost subconsciously that knowledge of the Muslim prayer might stand them in good stead if someone were to verify their Tatar identity, she taught them how to pray like Crimean Tatars. Regardless of the fact that under Soviet rule there was only one “religion”—Lenin, the Communist Party, the Soviet Union—families quite often maintained their knowledge and feelings of who they were: their language, their nationality, their faith. And this was very strong among Crimean Tatars. I remember this in my own family also. Yes, I was a Pioneer, but I myself knew this prayer. This is actually an episode from my life, from my childhood, when my aunt—unfortunately, she is no longer alive—taught this prayer to us, the three brothers. She did this just like it’s shown in the film. She held ten matches in her hands. She took one after the other, and repeated the prayer ten times. And I memorized it for all time, my entire life.)

Iryna Slavinska:  And the second rescue?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  The second rescue was from the communists. It happened in 1944, when NKVD troops were deporting the Crimean Tatars. They wanted to deport these children also, but Saide managed to show the NKVD officers the children’s real birth certificates that she had saved and to prove that they were not Crimean Tatars but Jews. As is generally known, fifty percent of the Crimean Tatar people died during the deportation, most of them women, children, and elderly people.

Iryna Slavinska:  The men were at the front. Actually, there is a similar story with the Holocaust in Ukraine. Maybe there were more chances for Jewish men who had been mobilized to the front to survive during the Second World War than for civilians living in the occupied territories, who then became victims of the Holocaust.

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Yes, and that’s why for me Nazism and communism are practically identical systems. First of all, they destroyed their own people. During the Soviet Union’s existence, 48 nationalities were deported: 42 partially and 6 totally. What kind of country was it, what kind of state was it, whose existence required destroying its own people?

Iryna Slavinska:  When I came out of the theater after watching A Prayer of Strangers, I was thinking that, as far as I can remember—but perhaps I am not sufficiently familiar with contemporary Ukrainian cinema—this is the first film in independent Ukraine devoted to the events of the Holocaust, but told through the prism of the history of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. For you, as a director of Crimean Tatar background, what is the story of the Holocaust?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  For me this history is, of course, a horror. This is of course a great tragedy also for me, being a Crimean Tatar. I am finding numerous parallels.

Jews were being destroyed precisely because they were Jews. No one asked about their ideological convictions. They were destroyed simply because they were Jews. The Crimean Tatars were destroyed the same way. It didn’t matter that you were a war hero or a party worker or an official. You’re a Crimean Tatar, and that’s precisely why you were destroyed.

And from my standpoint as a director, this is a very powerful drama about a person’s life. It is not important who you are. It is not important in which language you recite this prayer that is going to God for the deliverance of children. Yes, for me it is important that this story touches on Crimea, a Crimean Tatar woman, but above all, for me it was most important to recount a story about a mother and children; to recount how important it is for your child, if it is threatened with death, to have a person next to it who will not only present it with the hope that good exists, but also saves its life.

In this sense, there is no foreign prayer.

Iryna Slavinska:  Listening to these explanations of the metaphor of a mother who takes care of children in a dangerous situation, I thought that Saide the heroine, if one were to draw associations with the Christian religion, appears almost like the Mother of God—an immaculate virgin, a girl who takes care of children, her children, in a shelter. These are not in fact her children, but there are no foreign children in a woeful situation.

Akhtem Seitablaev:  If such an association arises, then I am very grateful to you. Perhaps we have done something right.

Iryna Slavinska:  The film A Prayer of Strangers is truly impressive. It is very suffused in drama and history, which allows one to feel some kind of shared resonance when it comes to memory, to the genocides that took place on the territory of Ukraine. We have already started talking about this exchange, if one can put it this way, between the memory of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, the genocide against the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, and the Holocaust in Ukraine. Do you sense any common trends or shared methods of talking and thinking about the genocides in Ukraine? For the sake of context and ideation, one can add here a third genocide, the Holodomor. Are there some kinds of common subjects in these stories?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Yes, there are. The first to be subjected to this Moloch are children, women, and elderly people. In other words, any such system, either Nazism or communism, tries first of all to eradicate the future, your memory, your awareness of who you are, your dreams. We all seek to survive, to save ourselves, and, first and foremost, we all care for our children. This is my personal cry, a kind of roar, that we have to do something together so that this does not happen. Unfortunately, this kind of thing still happens today.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is the memory of this or the pain—I am talking once again both about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars and about the Holocaust—included in contemporary Ukrainian history? How do you view this? Is it remembered on the mainstream level, or do people have to be reminded about the significance of 1944, for example?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Let’s be frank. Concerning the deportation, voices in Ukraine began to be raised loudly about this on the state level in the last four or five years. Around the date of 18 May there were always some letters from the state leadership to the Crimean Tatars, saying that “we remember,” but nothing more than that.

Iryna Slavinska:  But it took the annexation of Crimea for this topic to become more visible, and these letters stopped being simply letters?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Yes, unfortunately. On the one hand, it is “unfortunately,” but on the other hand, thank God. Probably all of us had to end up in this war situation in order to start being interested in those who live alongside us. And this concerns not just the Crimean Tatars. This concerns nearly every Ukrainian, because throughout all the years of independence practically nothing, as I see it, was done in order to sew the country together, as we say today.

And that’s why, thank God, this now exists in the information space, and bit by bit we are beginning to get closer to each other. We are all Ukrainians, and [beginning to] understand that there is a political nation of Ukrainians, and it is very good that we are very different. We speak different languages, we make coffee in different ways, we say “mama” in various ways, but we are all Ukrainians, and this is good. And if in this sense cinematography is taking a tiny step there, that’s great.

Iryna Slavinska:  Saide, the heroine of this film, carries out what is called an act of a Righteous Among the Nations. In the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem there are many spaces devoted to the feats of the Righteous among various peoples of the world. For those listeners who have not encountered this term, I am talking about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust, risking their own lives, because saving Jews was punishable by death, both for those who rescued and those whom they rescued. Is Saide recognized as Righteous Among the Nations? To what extent is this a documented figure? You have already talked about the nearly documentary nature of the film A Prayer of Strangers.

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Saide Arifova existed, and all that material, thanks to which we in fact wrote the screenplay, is freely accessible. Unfortunately, even though it was and is not our goal, her name is not among the Righteous Among the Nations. She is not officially recognized. Above all, we wanted to tell the story that I know. The information on which I relied is from Liliana Blunstein, a citizen of France who lived in Toulouse. There is a short account by her. There is also a fragment of the program Zhdy mene [Wait for Me]. There are statements from her [Saide’s] neighbors, her fellow countrymen.

As I understand it, during the years that she spent in deportation there was no communication and no possibility to find those children. For example, my two grandfathers, who returned from the front to Crimea and who had been deported the same way as their parents, wives, and families, searched for their families for a long time. One of them looked for two years, the other—three years. These were vigorous men, veterans, who were searching for their families. A young girl who was deported in 1944 to Central Asia and lived under curfew conditions until 1956—I don’t know how she could have located those children. We searched, and we are searching right now. We are really hoping for assistance from the Vad Vashem memorial complex, if there is interest on their part. We contacted them during the filming, and even the Ambassador of Israel in Ukraine, His Excellency Mr. Belotserkovsky, said that if his help is needed, he is ready to assist in this matter.

I have often fielded questions about corroborating the documentary nature of this story. I will not corroborate anything. If someone thinks that this did not happen, that this story is completely invented, I am ready to meet with this individual, and this person should also provide documented corroboration that this episode never took place.

Iryna Slavinska:  My question was not even so much about the need to corroborate something. Globally, it doesn’t even matter if there really was such a story because it is also important as a story about mutual assistance; about the fact that there are sufficiently brave people who find the strength in themselves, despite all the fear from the environment, to help someone. You didn’t think about where such bravery comes from?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  That is one of the main questions for me. I don’t know. Maybe if we say, “The times were like that”—there were various people in those times. Maybe they did not reflect on all the risks? No, they did reflect, because this is death, because it was well known what would happen to you if the Nazis found out about this fact.

I asked myself many times: “And if it were you, what would you have done?” And I didn’t find an answer. Sometimes I say: “Yes, yes, I would have done the same thing.” No, because this is very frightening. The consequences of this step will affect not just you, it may affect people close to you, and that is indeed what happened, because afterwards the entire family that had taken care of Jews, in the given case, was destroyed. Like, for example, the entire Hordii family, whose surname is in Yad Vashem. The entire family was involved in saving people who were being exterminated only because they were Jews. And I never did find an answer. She herself, the real Saide, said: “It is not correct to say that I saved them. We saved each other.”

Iryna Slavinska:  What does this mean? In what way can this experience save the savior?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  There is a saying that in teaching someone, you teach yourself. Because, step by step, one time after another, you are taking certain steps, you are repeating something. And this work of the soul is very difficult. It is impossible for it not to change you and not save you. Because there is this ambivalent process, when you are trying to prove with your actions that there is a belief that good will prevail and the belief that you are not alone, when every day, every morning, every evening you say this to children—and, of all people, children sense when you are lying or not. In this way, you are saving yourself. This is the boomerang of goodness. It probably cannot be otherwise.

Iryna Slavinska:  Quite a few names of Crimean cities are inscribed on the walls of Yad Vashem—you see this in the film. Did the memory of the Holocaust exist in Crimea? Does it exist now?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Right now, I don’t know.

Iryna Slavinska:  Before the annexation.

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Before the annexation…. Well, maybe I would be lying if I said yes…. Maybe some people, some individual civic organizations dealt with this. But these are the consequences of a Crimea that existed in a country of communism.

Iryna Slavinska:  Well, this is also a consequence of what you and I talked about earlier, about the supposed absence of memory about the 1944 deportation. This is non-inclusion in general contexts, and in this sense, of course, the film A Prayer of Strangers is very valuable because it provides additional space for a conversation. The Holocaust stops being a purely Jewish story, and the deportation of the Crimean Tatars—an exclusively Crimean Tatar story.

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Thank you for talking about it.

Iryna Slavinska:  I am convinced that you are receiving feedback from viewers who go to the movies. Before this conversation began, we had already begun talking about this. A film about the Holocaust, like about any genocide, is not the easiest story to tell. It is not a film that people go to see when they want to be entertained. On your day off you will definitely not go and see this film and eat popcorn in an air-conditioned theater. Who are the people who come to see A Prayer of Strangers, and what have you managed to hear or read from those who have already seen this film?

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Well, first of all, I want to thank everyone who took this step. At the pre-premiere screening in Lviv, a good half of the auditorium consisted of young people. And they were the first to write to me about their impressions of the film. I am grateful to each viewer because this is a responsible and clearly aimed step. Almost everyone who has seen the film writes: “I [a male] began crying from the second minute,” “Something happened to me.” You have to understand what you’re going to see, that for the next hour and a half you are consciously condemning yourself to this—pardon me for expressing it this way—to the work of sympathizing, to the work of your own soul. If you are a human being, you will sympathize. So much is happening all around which does not make you happy, and we have a war, unfortunately, and people are being killed, unfortunately, every day, nearly every day. And on top this you’re going to the movies to see this very difficult story.

Iryna Slavinska:  Another war.

Akhtem Seitablaev:  Yes, another war. That is why I am extraordinarily grateful to every viewer who came. A lot of people write to me, and I am very happy that, more often than not, there are people who write. This is such a good conclusion, such a good analysis of what they have seen. And in these letters there is always a clear-cut message. This cannot help but please me because I understand, I feel that my viewer has sympathy. He is a high-caliber person who is interested in what is happening all around him. He is interested in his own history, and the main thing—that this viewer understands clearly why he came, why he wept throughout this hour and a half, and that he took away something from viewing the film.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

This program was made possible by the non-profit Canadian organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk
Edited by Peter Bejger

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