The Wexford roots of Russia's fairy tale film-maker
ALEXANDER ROWE (or Rou), a Soviet film-maker famous for his 1960s fairytale adaptations, is a household name in Russia. But it is his Irish roots that are behind a festival to celebrate his work in Wexford next month.
Rowe achieved international success for his films of traditional folk tales from Russia – a long way from Wexford town, where his father, Arthur Rowe, grew up. Today, most of the director’s known relations are in Ireland and his cousin, David Rowe, is organising the festival to introduce Irish audiences to his work.
A talking pike, a magical fiery bird, a witch who flies around in a giant pestle and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and a fire- breathing dragon with three heads – these are just some of the Russian fairytale characters brought to life by Alexander Rowe. The pioneering film- director achieved international fame in 1965 with Morozko(Father Frost) and his films are still loved in Russia and the former Soviet bloc. But Rowe is virtually unheard of in Ireland, despite his strong Wexford connections.
One such connection is his first cousin David (90), a retired chartered accountant who grew up in a milling family in Wexford. “When we were young [Alexander] was a mysterious, exotic presence somewhere, about whom we only had rumours,” he says. “He is perhaps the most interesting of the Rowe clan.”
So how did a Wexford man’s son become Russia’s best-loved director of children’s films? According to David Rowe, his uncle and Alexander’s father, Arthur Rowe, travelled to Russia around 1904 as an employee of Henry Simon, a British manufacturer of flour-milling machinery. There, he met and married Yulia (or Eulie), a Russian of Greek descent, and they had a son, Alexander. Some time around 1909 Arthur Rowe brought his family to Wexford for a visit.
But after the revolution of 1917, Arthur fled Russia, leaving his family behind. It is thought he had at that point separated from his wife due to his alcoholism.
David Rowe was aged about four when Arthur returned to Wexford: “All I remember is he was a smelly man, and this was probably the drink,” he says. “My father had to pay his bill at the local.” Arthur Rowe then moved to Canada, where he died some 20 years later.
Meanwhile in turbulent Russia, life was hard for the Irishman’s estranged wife and the young Alexander. The future film-maker sold matches and combs, apparently to save money for an education. On his mother’s advice, Alexander went to a technical school, but his heart lay in the arts and he transferred to a film school, beginning his career in cinema.
Working his way up in Moscow’s studios, Rowe started producing his own films in 1938. He made 16 features – all of them based on Russian fairytales and folklore. To this day, Rowe’s work is considered original and inventive. For example, he was among the first directors to integrate live actors with animation and other effects. He travelled the world with his films, but he never returned to Ireland. He died in 1973 without meeting his Wexford family.
David Rowe had only two indirect contacts with Alexander (“We did not think it would be helpful to him, in communist Russia, to press the Irish connection,” he explains).
In the early 1960s, he sent Alexander a portion of the family legacy – some £300 – and some years later, his wife’s cousin went to Moscow and paid the director a visit. “He met her in a red dressing gown like a genial Buddha,” Rowe says. “His walls were lined with shelves containing objects for children – toys and perhaps props for his films. He gave her three wooden toys for our children. Everyone who knew him says he was a person who loved people, loved his food, loved his drink, loved children and that he was just a wonderful, warm, outgoing character.”
It is this image of Alexander that David Rowe wants to introduce to the wider Irish audience. Next month, the festival he is organising will feature visitors from Russia and screenings of Alexander’s work.