From Russia - and Israel - with love

The Israeli Russian Film Festival, held in New York for the second time, explores the overlap of cultures and gives voice to a much-maligned community.

Israeli Movies (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli Movies
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The only film festival in the world dedicated to Russian films made in Israel is not being held in Moscow or Tel Aviv, but in a far less likely locale: New York.

The Russian American Cultural Center (RACC) of New York played host to the second annual Israeli Russian Film Festival, which took place throughout December in various locations, and showcased a variety of dimensions of Israeli life with a Russian accent.

The heart of the festival was a one-day marathon held at the prestigious Tribeca Screening Room, on December 11. It developed out of a small-scale “Russian Émigré Film Festival,” which began 10 years ago, but as Israel has emerged as the most prolific film land of the post-Soviet emigration, it now merits a festival all its own.

Regina Khidekel, festival director and founder of the RACC, says that she wanted to “relate the search for identity between the two Russian communities” in America and Israel. The festival presents an alternative for American audiences to how Russians in American film are most often portrayed – as “villains, gangsters and prostitutes,” she notes. Quality Israeli Russian films, Khidekel explains, “depict the varieties of everyday life and experience.”

To further explain the curious location, The Jerusalem Report turned to New York State Assemblyman Alex Brook-Krasny, a special guest of the festival, who explained, “We are becoming a force.” As the first Soviet-born, Jewish Russian speaker to be elected to higher office in the US, he is a great example of this rise in status, and sees the festival “as part of the creation of new forms of self-identification for Russian Jews worldwide.”

Indeed, at a time when stories abound about growing disillusionment of American Jews with Israel, from the Russian-Jewish perspective the picture looks quite different. Director Michael Nemirovsky of the American Forum for Russian Jewry, the festival’s chief sponsor from the Jewish community, reminded The Report of the diversity of post-Soviet Jewry, which includes Bukharan, Caucasian and Georgian Jews, for example.

He asserted that for the majority of Ashkenazi Jews, what unites them to the Jewish people is “not Judaism, but Israel.” Nemirovsky, who in the Soviet Union went from being denied a higher education to becoming the vice president of the State University in Perm, near the Ural Mountains, went on to describe how out of a century of silence, these Jews are finding their voice again and rediscovering their history. “Each movie is a lesson,” Nemirovsky says.

Carefully curated, each successive entry in the festival highlighted different formats. These included films made for television, historical and contemporary documentaries and feature films, as well as differing dimensions of Russian integration and discontent in Israeli society.

The featured stars and festival honorees this year were the husband-and-wife team Slava and Lena Chaplin, who since their emigration from the Soviet Union in 1976 “have become the leading elder statesman and woman of the Israeli film scene,” according to Russian Israeli film expert Olga Gershenson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts.

The choice of the Chaplins as guest stars carries the added weight that they represent a case where artists “were able to successfully transfer their practice from one country to another without the devaluation of status that often accompanies emigration,” Khidekel adds.

The day started with a recent excerpt from the Chaplins’ three-part miniseries “Weeping Susannah,” based on Alona Kimhi’s award-winning novel, which principally deals with the psychological suffering of Susannah – a character so encumbered by life that she is often too afraid to venture out of her room.

The action shifts upon the arrival of her art-dealer cousin from New York, who specializes in Russian art, and Russian cultural greats such as Levitan and the Soviet nonconformist school then become part of the story’s vocabulary.

The cousin’s deepening engagement with a top Russian art dealer and his daughter reveal the Russian family to be a more cosmopolitan and seemingly less troubled counterpart to his own secular, (bourgeois) Israeli family consumed by its own quiet desperation and downward expectations.

This was followed by the world premiere of a documentary sponsored by the American Forum for Russian Jewry, “Resort Terezin,” which was distinguished less by its content matter – the well-known cultural interlude at the Nazi concentration camp – then by the fact that it represents a new and distinctly Russian contribution to the large body of cinematic work on the Holocaust.

The heart of the proceedings at the festival main event was the Chaplins’ “Paper Snow,” which was only their second feature film (after having completed more than 50 documentary films) “at an age when most are prepared to retire,” remarked Gershenson. Filmed in a sepia tone that radiates nostalgia, this work reveals how the early Zionism of Tel Aviv café culture was a bohemian enterprise dedicated to upending all the sacred cows of Jewish life.

Gradually, what was alternative becomes mainstream. The film also depicts the founding of Israeli culture as just one strain of a larger story of Russian cultural history.

The narrative centers around the tempestuous and celebrated love affair between Russian-born Hanna Rovina, renowned star of Tel Aviv’s Habimah Theater of the Thirties and following decades, with maverick Russian-born poet Alexander Penn. Rovina was such an icon that when she was hospitalized in 1934 for complications of her out-ofwedlock pregnancy with her daughter, fathered by Penn, the radio carried hourly updates on her condition.

Made for a Hebrew-speaking audience, the film, which shows looming Zionist cultural legends such as Bialik, Ussishkin and Shlonsky all conversing in Russian, is a not-so-subtle reminder that the Russian cultural world was not foreign to Israel’s founders, but rather was for many its lingua franca. “The umbilical cord of culture used to be between Russia and Israel, though now it is between Israel and America,” Lena Chaplin reminded to the audience.

The festival then moved along to Renen Schorr’s 2009 film “The Loners.” Though Schorr, former director of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film School, has Russian roots, the real connection to the proceedings was that the cinematographers were former students of the Chaplins.

Based on a true story, the film depicts perhaps the ultimate nightmare of any immigrant: to be accused of treason, in this case of selling weapons to Hamas, while serving the country in an elite military unit. Neatly dovetailing with the festival’s overall themes, it is ultimately about the deep need to belong and the desperation that ensues when that desire is thwarted.

The real buzz of this year’s festival though was Lena Chaplin’s documentary “Yoel, Israel and Pashkavilis,” in which she brought her craft where no camera had ever gone before to fashion a curiously sympathetic expose of the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Natorei Karta sect. Centering around their exclusive method of media communication, poster bills or pashkavilim (they eschew television, film and the Internet) the film reaches into the intimate family moments of everyday life and reveals young couples who are shy and selfeffacing about their radicalism.

They go to the extreme of milking their own cows so as to avoid purchasing “Zionist food.”

What’s striking is that these most religious of Israelis, self-styled “Maccabees,” succumbed to the temptation of being filmed for the first time for representatives of a community of Israel’s most devout secularists, those who came from the former Soviet Union.

“There is so much discourse about tolerance and embracing minorities in Israel, they can also be seen as another minority who can be approached without bias,” explains Chaplin. Although Chaplin and the “Yoel” of the title bonded over his collection of 20,000 pashkavilim, “it remained a mystery why he agreed to participate, and certain things, such as how they subsist financially with so many children, were never revealed,” she adds.

This fresh perspective, free from the conventional wisdom of what facets of Israeli society are deserving of sympathy, also shows the special contributions possible by Russian film due to its “outsider” status. Through increased productivity, this micro-film industry could soon be the new avant garde for challenging subjects and themes in Israeli film.

The Chaplins’ next film will tackle the large community of Russian artists hidden amongst Israel’s tens of thousands of security guards. The film will focus on the professors, artists and scientists who ended up taking jobs guarding and searching bags at a myriad places in Israeli society, from small restaurants to large malls. The film, already in production, is set to explore the gamut of their reactions from self-pity to stoic acceptance.

This year’s festival wound down at a number of satellite locations in December throughout South Brooklyn, where the largest contingent of the Russian Jewish community resides, while next year’s is already planned again for Tribeca, this time for a full three days.