Gustav Shpet: Russian philosopher, teacher, writer, polyglot and interpreter; born in Kiev in 1879; exiled to Tomsk, Siberia in 1935; executed in 1937.
This movie is mostly narrated by Shpet’s 92-year old daughter Marina in a series of informal interviews, intercut with contemporaneous film reels, photos and music, as well as Shpet’s letters to Marina during his exile.
We follow Marina as she visits the university (much changed) where her father taught, the church she occasionally attended in the 30’s (hardly changed); tries to visit the apartment where she lived (security wouldn’t even let the film crew and her through the front door); tells the story of her husband, who died one year after her father, working to take down the Russian coat of arms from the Kremlin’s Spasskaya tower and replace it with the tacky red neon star that still shines today.
And we visit a Tomsk museum to Siberian exiles. Shpet is just one of hundreds of names that came to Siberia, one face on a whole wall of faces. The museum curator tells visitors that the NKVD actually planned their purges and ethnic cleanses, with expected minimums (quotas?) of roundups for each region per year.
In the end this is not a story about one man, smart and accomplished though he was. It’s a story about memory, connecting with our past the better to understand our present. And it’s about a past that’s always present no matter how much we try to erase it—streets and buildings, phrases, memories. The Soviet regime did their best to erase ideas, thoughts, and people. To a degree they succeeded, but only to a degree. Shpet told his daughter that “culture, culture, not politics” is what will keep us moving forward. Without going into too much detail, I tend to agree. Culture, memory both individual and collective, this is vitally important to identity and progress.
Palimpsest was preceded by the short Heart in the Wrong Place (original title: Tener el corazón en el lugar equivicado), featuring the extremely awesome experimental filmmaker José Antionio Sistiaga.