Behind the Curtain

The Texas Documentary Tour: Amy Grappell's 'Light From the East'

Behind the Curtain

Talk about life imitating art. Or, a doc taking on a life of its own. Amy Grappell went to Ukraine in 1991 to both act in and film a historic first theatrical collaboration between New York's La MaMa Experimental Theater troupe and a Ukrainian group performing Light From the East, a play about the revolutionary theatre director Les Korbas, one of more than a thousand dissident writers and artists murdered by Stalin in a 1937 purge. During that summer of 1991, the Cold War was ending; Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost was in effect, and he was a day away from signing a treaty decentralizing the Soviet Union. Rehearsals for the Korbas play were proceeding apace when, on the morning of Aug. 19, three days before the play was to open, Grappell's Ukrainian host, Natalia, wakes her up screaming, "Gorbachev isn't president anymore!" Turns out, Gorbachev had been kidnapped and the Kremlin overthrown by a military coup. Shocked and visibly shaken by this unexpected development, Grappell asks the question that we chuckle at, but, in the same situation, would probably all have asked: "Does this happen often?"

Needless to say, Grappell's doc skids and then veers sharply from the inside-a-historic-theatrical-collaboration film she'd planned on. As the American troupe finds itself trapped in the middle of a political coup, Grappell recalls being struck by "how removed Americans are from the immediacy of political events, the harsh realities of war and revolution." They decide not to take the advice of the American embassy and leave, but instead to stay the course: The show will go on. "There was an added element of danger and risk," Grappell explains, "but I primarily saw the unexpected events that unfolded as an opportunity to capture something immediate and historically important." Of course, now the play they're rehearsing – about the struggle for artistic expression during the Communist revolution – is mirrored by the struggle going on in the streets outside, as that same Communist regime is crumbling. The coup is eventually defeated and soon thereafter, Ukraine declares its independence.

What did Grappell take away from all of this on a personal level? "A belief in the power of the human spirit, an understanding that despite cultural boundaries we are connected by a desire for essentially the same things and a recognition of the importance of art (self-expression) in shaping history," she says via e-mail. "In the context of the fall of the so-called evil empire, I learned some important lessons about freedom. In this day and age, when the term 'freedom' is being so highly politicized, I think it is important for people to consider its true meaning." And the unsurprising nota bene from Grappell as a filmmaker? "Embrace the unexpected and let it take you to places you never thought your film could go. I am less inclined to force a preconceived idea while shooting and more inclined to capture the struggles and process of what develops while shooting."

But obviously things are not yet settled in this part of the world, and Grappell is not done there, either. Next up for her is a doc that looks at the transition from communism to democracy in the developing nations of the former Soviet Union. "I revisited Ukraine in 2004 to visit the original members of the 1991 theatre troupe and ended up documenting another coup of sorts, as I experienced the events leading up to the poisoning of Yushchenko and the Orange Revolution. I plan to shoot an interview with Yushchenko to discuss the events leading up to his election in the spring of 2005." end story

Light From the East screens as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, July 13, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. Amy Grappell will participate in a Q&A after the screening. Tickets are $4 for current Austin Film Society members and new members joining before the screening, as well as students, and $6 for nonmembers. They are available through the Austin Film Society ( or at the venue one hour prior to screening.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Screens
Austin Artist Brings Gamera to Vibrant Life in a New Box Set
Austin Artist Brings Gamera to Vibrant Life in a New Box Set
Matt Frank builds the perfect monster

Richard Whittaker, Aug. 28, 2020

SXSW Film Reviews: 'Lunarcy!'
Daily Reviews and Interviews

Wayne Alan Brenner, March 15, 2013

More by Anne S. Lewis
An Old Crime Bubbles to the Surface in <i>Descendant</i>
An Old Crime Bubbles to the Surface in Descendant
Margaret Brown observes a drowned history

March 11, 2022

The Only Constant on Congress Is Change
The Only Constant on Congress Is Change
Liz Lambert chronicles being both sides of the gentrification debate in Through the Plexi-Glass

March 19, 2021


Light From the East, Texas Documentary Tour, Amy Grappell

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle