Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue on a cold December day in 1987, at the now-famous Washington rally for Soviet Jewry, I held up a sign calling on the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to free Yevgeny Lein.
Years later (last Sunday to be exact), sitting in my living room watching the film documentary, “Refusenik,” I finally saw what Yevgeny Lein looked like. I heard him tell his story through a Russian interpreter.
After all those years I finally felt a connection to the dissident whose freedom I marched for as a young man.
That’s the real power of “Refusenik,” a film coming to Pittsburgh for a one-night-only screening Tuesday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m., at the SouthSide Works Cinema. The movie personalizes the inspiring stories of a small group of Soviet Jews who defied the Soviet superpower by asking to immigrate to Israel.
Certainly, many American Jews had strong personal ties to the Refuseniks, and the film tells their stories, too — their visits to the Soviet Union, their clandestine meetings with Refuseniks, the chances they took by smuggling books and religious objects into the country.
But other Jews who never visited the Soviet Union and never met a Refusenik, played a more distant role. They came to rallies, lit candles and wrote to their congressmen.
For those thousands of American Jews a step removed from the fight to free their captive landsmen, this film brings the struggle full circle.
The program is being presented in collaboration with the Pittsburgh
Jewish-Israeli Film Festival and the United Jewish Federation.
Five years in the making, “Refusenik” is the first retrospective documentary to chronicle the 30-year grassroots movement to free Soviet Jews, according to its director, Laura Bialis.
“At the beginning it took time because we were waiting to raise money,” Bialis said in a phone interview from Israel, where she is making another film about Sderot. “After that, that we did 112 interviews and we had a massive amount of material. The story was so vast; it’s actually quite narrowed from what could have been included. It was just a very difficult film to make.”
Some of the 112 interviews are with Natan Sharansky and his wife Avital, and Vladimir Slepak, as well as American Jews who took up their cause and congressmen such as Fr. Robert Drinan, who signed on to it. For Pittsburghers, the film clips of the late Sen. John Heinz serve as a reminder of how hard a non-Jewish native son worked to free Refuseniks.
The film recounts red letter dates in the history of the struggle, from a 1970 attempted hijacking of a Soviet airliner by desperate Refuseniks, to the arrest and trial of Sharansky (and his eventual release), to that 1987 rally in Washington, which showed Gorbachev in no uncertain terms, that he couldn’t overlook the Refusenik issue any longer.
Gorbachev, who is actually interviewed for the film, incredibly states that many of the Refuseniks were his “friends.” The irony of that statement, Bialis said, is not lost on the Refuseniks who see the film.
“When you show that in a room full of Refusniks,” she said, “it absolutely cracks them up; they’re on the floor laughing.”
Some of Gorbachev’s more eyebrow-raising comments didn’t make the final cut, like when he appears at first not to recall who Sharansky is, then remembers and calls him “a great guy.”
Bailis said Gorbachev was “just pretending he (Sharansky) wasn’t public enemy No. 1 during the beginning of his tenure. That was a trip.”
Also missing from the film is a staggering remark by the KGB chief at the height of the Refusenik struggle.
“He looked me in the eye and told me no there were no Refuseniks,” Bialis said. “He was still playing the party line.”
The 36-year-old Bialis hopes the film can serve as a teaching tool to young Jews who know little, if anything about the Refusenik struggle.
She said she was taken aback by a recent screening of the film in Milwaukee when, after the lights came on, two high school girls stood up, looked and angrily wondered why they had never heard anything about this period of modern Jewish history.
“I really wanted this [film] to go to high schools and colleges, and show the Jewish youth what their parents achieved, Bialis said, and what they themselves are capable of achieving.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-687-1005.)