The Russian Underground

Two films screening at Tel Aviv’s DocAviv festival portray the lives of struggling immigrant youth from the former Soviet Union.

The cast of ‘Babylon Dreamers’ (photo credit: ROMAN SHUMUNOV / COURTESY DOCAVIV)
The cast of ‘Babylon Dreamers’
ABOUT A million Israelis are either immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel during the last 25 years. Many of the “Russians” ‒ as Israelis tend to call them even though they may have come from areas as diverse as the Ukraine or Azerbaijan – have successfully become a part of mainstream Israeli society, but a large number remain cut off in working-class neighborhoods where Russian is heard much more frequently than Hebrew.
Two films premiering at this year’s DocAviv film festival describe the struggles of young people growing up in these ghettos and give viewers an inside look into a segment of society that is seldom seen.
The protagonists of “Babylon Dreamers” are very much on the fringes of Israeli society.
The film, produced by Israel’s Channel 8 and HOT, portrays a group of downtrodden immigrant men from the former Soviet Union in their twenties who are breakdance enthusiasts. Their dream is to compete in the world breakdance championship.
“They are a very courageous group of individuals who face an uncertain future in neighborhoods where there is lots of crime and most people work in low-paying jobs,” Roman Shumunov, the film’s director, tells The Jerusalem Report.
He points out that through breakdancing, a form of acrobatic street dance, they are able to escape, even if momentarily, the mundaneness of their daily lives and “achieve something that nobody expects them to be capable of doing.”
“Babylon in hip-hop culture is the System, Big Brother, everything that tells us how to live, how to do this, how to do that,” says Shumunov, explaining the title of the film. “But they have decided to defy the system and take charge of their own lives.”
The film follows the group in their adopted town of Ashdod as they teach themselves various dance routines and practice in public courtyards and bomb shelters.
They learn from watching videotapes because they don’t have enough money to hire someone to help them train or develop choreography for competitions.
All of them face difficult family situations.
Mixer, 27, is looking after his adolescent half-brother and half-sister because their alcoholic mother is unable to care for them.
Poter, 21, becomes so obsessed with training for the breakdance competition that he goes AWOL from the army and ends up serving a month and a half in an army jail.
“Breakdancing means everything to Poter and his breakdance friends give him the family life that he lacks,” observes Shumunov.
Shumunov, 32, immigrated to Israel without his parents in 2001, when he was 17. He was part of the Jewish Agency’s Sela program, which sponsored the immigration of thousands of youngsters between the ages of 14-17 during and after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging,” recalls Shumunov, describing how he felt when he joined the program.
“My family was originally from Soviet Georgia, a place that went through hard times as I was growing up. As Jews there, we were always outsiders.”
Shumunov’s parents eventually followed Roman’s example and also immigrated to Israel. However, his father, a doctor, and his mother, a math teacher, became frustrated after being unable to find work in their professions. They later moved to the US, making their home in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach community of expat Russians.
Shumunov, himself, readily adjusted to life in Israel.
“My first year in Israel at a boarding school in Karmiel was a great experience and I remain grateful for that,” he comments.
Following high school he served in the IDF and then studied film-making at Sapir College. His final project was a film about a music group formed by Russian immigrants like himself, who were part of the Sela program.
He was writing a script for a feature film based on the story of a music group, when he heard about the breakdance group.
“It bothered me when I found out that they had to do everything on their own.
Even though they were representing Israel in international competitions, they were receiving no financial support or any official recognition from the authorities,” recalls Shumunov.
Shumunov did all of the filming and editing of “Babylon Dreamers” himself over the course of three and a half years. “I expected to finish it within a year, but I didn’t feel I could stop until I had given the group something worthy of them,” he says.
Sinai Abt, the artistic director of DocAviv points out to The Report that both “Babylon Dreamers” and “Sashka” reflect the current zeitgeist as well as the main theme of this year’s film festival. “We are calling the festival the ‘New World Disorder’ with an emphasis on films dealing with topics like refugees and terror, but also on the difficult socioeconomic conditions that many people face today,” says Abt, who reviewed more than 1,000 documentaries before selecting the 100 that are being presented.
“I don’t think Sashka realizes how much the plight of his family and his very own destiny have been affected by the immigration of his family to Israel,” Yana Lerner, the director of the film “Sashka,” a coming- of-age documentary about a teenage boy growing up in the development town of Sderot on the Gaza border, tells The Report.
The film shows how Sashka, through his resilient sense of humor and optimism, tries to overcome the tragic circumstances of his family that have led to the death of his father. Despite difficulties at school and home, and the ongoing barrage of Kassam rockets from nearby Gaza, he manages to approach life with a witty, philosophical outlook. As he grows older, he displays a growing maturity in his attitude toward his impending military service. “Sashka” is an intimate film portrait that contrasts Sashka’s soft, captivating nature with the harsh circumstances he faces.
The film was very much a labor of love, says Lerner, 28, who came to know Sashka as part of the Perach (Big Brother) project, where she served as his tutor while studying at Sapir College in Sderot.
“There was an immediate click between us when I first met him five years ago,” she recalls, noting that though tutors are normally only allowed to work with children for a single year, she and Sasha both insisted on being able to continue with each other for three. “Maybe they know what they are doing when they normally limit tutors to a single year because the two of us became really connected,” says Lerner.
Lerner, who grew up in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv, points out that it was through her friendship with Sashka that she was able to cope with the tension that came with living in an area that was constantly under rocket fire launched by militants in the Gaza Strip.
“When I first moved to Sderot from the center of the country, it was very stressful, but when you see it through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, the reality gains perspective,” she says. Lerner, who was born in Odessa and immigrated to Israel with her family when she was one year old, notes that the Perach program matched her with Sashka so she could speak in Russian to his mother, who knows little Hebrew, even though she immigrated to Israel 17 years ago, a year before Sashka was born.
As Lerner got to know the family and their surroundings, she found herself encountering a world with which she was not very familiar.
“Russian families like my parents tried to create a new reality, to be just like other Israelis and tried to speak Hebrew to each other as soon as possible. However, when I came back home from nursery school speaking a few words of Hebrew, my father didn’t know what I was saying,” she recalls.
“But, in neighborhoods like the one Sashka’s family lives in, people have their own Russian supermarkets where they sell food from Russia, get their hair styled by Russian barbers, watch Russian television and have little to do with what is going on outside,” says Lerner. The experience of making the film, she notes, helped her better understand members of the Sderot Russian immigrant community and made her feel a closer link to them.
“Getting to know Sashka enabled me to get to know someone who has many strengths and who has a lot to say that is worth hearing,” she says. “Similarly, I hope the film will allow people to recognize the potential of people like him, who live on the margins of Israeli society.”
DocAviv is being held in Tel Aviv from May 19-28.