Some stories can't be walked away from. A quarter of a century ago, Russian sea captain Vladimir Kuperman put in at the port of Seattle and was astonished to find a request relayed to him from an old woman in St. Petersburg: Find the home of an old man named Burl Bramhall, and leave a wreath of flowers on the door.
Editor guided voyage of salvation
By Burl Burlingame
Returning to Russia, his curiosity piqued, Kuperman looked up the woman, and she told him a tale of the terrible Russian Revolution, of children starving in the streets, of the frigid hell of Siberia and the hatred of the Whites and Reds locked in civil war, and she told of a small group of American Red Cross volunteers -- Bramhall was one -- who journeyed to Russia and managed to rescue nearly a thousand children and spirit them all the way around the world to safety in a commandeered Japanese freighter. From 1918 to '20, the children voyaged from the Russian Far East to San Francisco, to Panama, to New York and then to Finland to be reunited with their parents.
The leader, interestingly, was a Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper editor named Riley Allen.
Kuperman was consumed by the story, and it became a passion of his. He began collecting information and photographs about the long-forgotten incident, and eventually wrote some articles about it.
A few years ago, Los Angeles film student Alex Ostroff was awakened at 3 a.m. by relatives calling from Russia. They had the most interesting man over for dinner, they said. They put Kuperman on the line, and Ostroff forgot about sleep. He sat on the edge of the bed and listened, wide-eyed, as Kuperman told him about the "Children's Ark," a voyage of decency in the midst of conflict.
"The Children's Ark," a documentary by Ostroff, premiered this week at the Hawaii International Film Festival, and Ostroff is surprised by the warm reception his low-budget work has received. "Considering that no one really knows this story, people sure had a lot of questions after the screenings."
Sight unseen, Kuperman entrusted all his research to Ostroff, and "boxes and boxes of stuff arrived from Russia," said Ostroff. He and associates wondered what to do with the material -- a feature was considered, and is still a priority -- and they settled on a straightforward documentary, particularly since Kuperman had already filmed some interviews with survivors on 16 mm film in the 1980s. The gaps in the visual record could be filmed with re-enactments. (One scene supposedly shows an aging Riley Allen, played by the late Star-Bulletin editor Bud Smyser.)
Then another call came in the middle of the night. "You're not going to believe this," said Kuperman. "But my most recent article mentioned that all the children survivors had passed on. An old lady called me from Belgium. Not so! she said. I'm 98 and a Children's Ark survivor. Come and interview me quick!"
Right away -- "God forbid she pass away before we got there!" -- Ostroff, Kuperman and a Red Cross film crew met with Yevgenia LeClerc, who "had a grip like steel and a huge smile and was still buying and selling stocks at her age. She was incredibly sharp, and gave us eight hours of the most incredible interview. It forms the heart of the film. We were 'a miracle,'" she said. "She'd waited all these years to tell her story."
LeClerc, who was well off, gave the production funds to get it under way. "I must have thanked her for an hour."
Two weeks after returning, Kuperman called again: LeClerc had died in her sleep. "There was no better person to dedicate the film to. What an amazing woman."
Other costs added up, including Russian film archivists who would hold historic footage hostage, and Ostroff figures the completed work cost about $40,000, which drained him financially. The good reception at the festival shows that the film has a future. (For suggestions, contact Ostroff at Alcove Entertainment, 310-259-0517 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Ostroff still can't figure out why Allen did it, why he tore himself from life in paradise to endure hardship and privation and danger in faraway Siberia. There are indications that he fell in love with a Russian woman during the adventure, but she died of meningitis.
Although he edited the Star-Bulletin for nearly half a century, Allen never married and never had children. "But he'd often tell people he had hundreds of kids in Russia," said Ostroff.
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