Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Mini-Fest

Kate Lerman

The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Mini-Fest goes from March 28th to 30th. Kate Lerman attends and reviews...

In its 21st year, the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival has been moved from the Spring, to the Fall. The First Annual Mini-Fest was created as a transition for the change.

One documentary that's part of the Mini-Fest is ‘Refusenik’. The term referred to Soviet Jews who were refused an exit visa. By 1992, more than a million and a half Jewish people have left the Soviet Union. ‘Refusenik’, directed by Laura Bialis, tells the story of the movement that allowed this to happen.

My experience as a young person born in one nation, and raised in two others, provides me with two things. One, a mix of rich cultures to learn about and enjoy, and two, a constant need to balance: balance languages, traditions, customs. Film can help bridge the gaps, answer some questions, and pose others, and a doc like 'Refusenik' is no exception.

A quick aside, one of my favourite films last year was 'Milk', a biopic detailing the last eight years in the life of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States. It, too, dealt with a movement, activism, and a continuing quest for human rights.

That film is very much a Movie, with a capital 'M', while still retaining the spirit of its story and its character. Watching a film like 'Refusenik', and docs in general, most of the gloss is gone, and as a piece of film, certain conventions of documentary-making do exist, occasionally weighing the film down. But the archival footage is fascinating, and the film's strength lies in its very human stories. I find it striking how both films I've mentioned left me nostalgic for a time I haven’t personally experienced. I think this comes from seeing people of all ages, all professions, joining a movement. Inspiring, absolutely, but also vital to see, in order for continuing movements to thrive.

Many interviewed in 'Refusenik' detail a struggle with oppression and often outright violence. The film builds a tapestry of activists and leaders of the movement, from the Soviet Union, North America, England and other regions. It details their setbacks, triumphs, and methods of getting their message across and rallying the public.

One emotional and striking example is the story of Anatoly (Natan) Scharansky and his wife Avital. He was jailed for 9 years, she already immigrated to Israel. Politicians and the diplomacy of the times are weaved through the film. To hear Scharansky speak, followed a few minutes later by an interview with former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is a sharp juxtaposition, not ideologically, but considering the different amounts of power and the role each man had.

Obviously, you don't need to be Russian or Jewish to be moved by the stories captured in the film. One of the moments in 'Refusenik' that has stayed with me is footage of Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin, speaking to a crowd, decrying the mistreatment of Soviet Jews. His convictions were in line with those of Avital Scharansky, who campaigned tirelessly for her husband's release. Both believed that every person has beliefs, and convictions, and rights; they are fundamentally there whether we're aware of them, rarely give the concept any thought, or have struggled, or are struggling to obtain and maintain our rights or the rights of others.

'Refusenik' is being shown on Sunday, March 29th, at 2:30pm at the Ridge Theatre. The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Mini-Fest goes from March 28th to 30th. For more info, visit


  • Posted on: 11 March 2016
  • By: Administrator