A few weeks ago, a friend suggested a movie for me to watch. He wanted to know my take on it. I haven’t gotten back to him on this, but I am going to try to lay out a few of those thoughts here. The film is called Everything is Illuminated. It has been described as very quirky. Yes, it is quirky. And to me, it was a visual explanation of what genealogy is. It was what genealogy would look like if it was a picture.
It is basically the story of a man named Jonathan’s search for his ancestry in a distant country, Ukraine, a place where he does not speak the language, or even really know what he is looking for. He is a particular kind of genealogist. Instead of compiling stories or building trees, he collects the “things” of people’s lives. Not even the normal heirlooms one thinks of in families, but rather the detritus of their lives. This was interesting. But what was even more interesting to me were the several side stories. At first they felt just like little parts of the film, but they became, to me, the main part of the story.
The first story was that of the tour guide, who drove the car that Jonathan, in his search for his ancestry, rented. The guide was silent, brusque, and abrasive. We know nothing about him, and it seems he knows nothing about himself, either, until they finally come to the place that Jonathan is searching for. Here the guide comes to remember that the place Jonathan searched for was his place also. And this realization, transforms him into a completely different person than we thought he was.
The second story was the of that place that Jonathan is searching for, itself. This place no longer actually exists in the sense that we normally think of a place as a location on a map. It only exists in the artifacts left behind, buried along a river where the town used to be, prior to its destruction in WWII. The artifacts have their own collector and keeper, a kind of mirror of Jonathan, in the Ukraine. Jonathan is marveled by the collection of artifacts that the collector has amassed. Where he is the keeper of his family’s artifacts, the Ukrainian collector is the keeper of the whole village’s artifacts. An archive of boxes of each person’s belongings. The solid bits of their lives.
The third story is that of the tour guide’s grandson. He is along on the journey with his grandfather, acting as translator for Jonathan. But a translator for more than just language, rather for the foreign world in which Jonathan finds himself immersed. He provides the lens through which Jonathan experiences this trip. The grandson knows little about his grandfather, even though he lives with him, but it is apparent that he loves him very much. As we come to know his grandfather, so does the grandson. And with that understanding of who his grandfather is, he learns that he, himself, is not at all who he thought he was.
Through the lens of the past, the present comes into focus.
Everything is Illuminated. Dir. Liev Schreiber. Perf. Elijah Wood, Eugene Hütz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret. Warner Independent Pictures, 2005. Film. (Adapted from the novel: Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.)