A Passion for History Brings Heroic Tale to Life

Refusenik documentary has West Coast Premiere at the Plaza de Oro Theater

Finding a career that combines her interests in art, social justice, history and international politics is a dream come true for filmmaker Laura Bialis. Her documentary, Refusenik, (www.refusenikmovie.com) which chronicles the thirty-year international movement to free Soviet Jews, opens Friday night at the Plaza de Oro Theater. The movie will run for a week and Bialis will be there on Sunday at the 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. screenings to answer questions about her experiences making the film, which has been described as “a tapestry of first-person accounts of heroism, sacrifice, and ultimately, liberation,” as told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain–many of whom survived punishment in Soviet Gulag labor camps.

The screenings are a coming home of sorts for Bialis, a 1991 San Marcos High graduate, whose parents–Ellen and Gary Bialis–still live in Santa Barbara. She had her first job as an intern, working for Rod Lathim at the now-closed Access Theatre. “It’s interesting because that was a nonprofit, and now I’m running a nonprofit for the arts and Rod is on the board of my nonprofit,” said Bialis.

She’s certainly come full circle.

An avid historian and film buff, Bialis created the Foundation for Documentary Projects (http://documentaryprojects.org) as a way to fuse her love of history with her passion for filmmaking. Her 1999 film, Tak For Alt– Survival of a Human Spirit, (http://www.takforalt.net/) told the story of Holocaust survivor turned Civil Rights activist Judy Meisel, a Santa Barbara resident. The film chronicles Meisel’s journey back to Eastern Europe to re-trace her wartime journey: from the Kovno Ghetto through the Stutthof Concentration Camp, and ultimately on to Denmark, where she was liberated and restored to health by an outpouring of Danish compassion.

Tak For Alt enjoyed a brief theatrical distribution, aired on PBS and won many awards–from Anti-Defamation League and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among others–and is now being used by teachers in over thirty states, and has been implemented into history curricula in many school districts.

The seeds for the development of “Refusenik” were actually planted at a screening of “Tak For Alt” in Omaha, Nebraska. After every screening, people would come up to me and want me to make a movie about them or their grandmother or someone else they knew, laughed Bialis. ” We were inundated with all these requests, but these people in Omaha were just adamant that I meet this activist, Shirley Goldstein. She actually gave the first seed grant for the movie. We used it to do a trailer which we used to raise the money to make Refusenik.”

While the story of the “Refuseniks” isn’t widely known, it’s a powerful one. In the early 1960s, reports came to the West of blatant anti-Semitism in the Communist-controlled Soviet Union. For example, the government was closing synagogues, the study of Hebrew was forbidden, Soviet Jews were required by law to carry “internal passports” identifying their Jewish heritage, and they were barred from studying at many universities and refused entrance into selected professions. Yet those who asked permission to emigrate were told they could never leave, effectively making the Soviet Jews prisoners in their own country.

Bialis interviewed more than 100 people and shot more than 200 hours of interview footage to tell the story of the “Refuseniks,” who took the unprecedented step of publicly challenging the communist regime. The film chronicles their stories of courageous activism and tales of hardship: the development of an underground Hebrew school; risky smuggling of information to the West; fear of being arrested; shock of being brought to trial on trumped up charges; and suffering in prison or in exile merely for demanding freedom.

“My first degree (she did her undergraduate work at Stanford, followed by USC film school) is in history, so I actually approached it like I was doing some sort of archiving project,” she said. “I started out by asking people about how they were involved … it was such a grassroots movement. The rallies would get hundreds of thousands people involved.”

Eventually, the activists’ incessant demands pushed the issue and legislators enacted a law limiting the amount of business the United States would conduct with countries that violated human rights–the first time the United States placed restrictions on a country for rights abuses of its own population. Nuclear disarmament negotiations with the USSR included American demands for a change in Soviet emigration policies and in 1989, the Soviet Union finally succumbed to international pressure and the gates were opened.

“It might be the most successful human rights movement of all time,” said Bialis. “At the end of the movement 1.5 million Jews got out of the Soviet Union. It was a very inspiring thing.”

She worked on the project for five years, traveling around the world to track down different pieces of the story. “Though it’s about a historical movement, this is a really timely issue because there are still human rights violations going on around the world. Sometimes we need to be reminded of what is possible if you believe that what you’re doing is right.”

Refusenik opens Friday, May 23, 2008 at the Plaza de Oro Theater, 371 South Hitchcock Way, Santa Barbara, 805.963.9503 (http://www.movietickets.com/house_detail.asp?exid=met&house_id=2278).

Originally published in Noozhawk on May 20, 2008.