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  • New Immigrant, Old Story:Framing Russians on the Israeli Screen
  • Olga Gershenson (bio) and Dale Hudson (bio)

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, nearly two million people escaped the former empire to pursue new lives in Israel, the United States, Germany, and other countries. By the mid-1990s, the "new Russian immigrant" had begun to emerge as a character in both commercial and art-house cinema in these countries.1 Because cinematic representations of immigrants often reveal more about the cultures producing and consuming such images and narratives than they do about actual immigrant experiences, the Russian immigrant character points to particular national responses to new waves of immigration at the onset of post–Cold War globalization, reflecting gendered, ethnic, and religious contradictions and inconsistencies within popular conceptions of national identity. In this article, we examine films about female Russian immigrants to Israel as sites of debates over nation and integration in the Israeli context, as well as sites of larger debates over accommodations and adjustments necessary for participation within the international community, particularly the international art-house film market.

The new Russian immigrant character marked an important departure from representations of Russian characters outside Soviet-bloc cinemas prior to the collapse of the USSR. Previously, spies and defectors had embodied the majority of representations of Soviet citizens, particularly in Hollywood Cold War action-adventure films and spy thrillers. Since the fall of Soviet communism, Russian immigrants have appeared most visibly in films that, either directly or indirectly, are concerned with the Russian Mafia. These new Russian immigrant characters are typically male, such as the Russian mafiosi in Karma Local (US 1998; dir. Darshan Bhagat) and The Quickie (France/UK/Germany 2001; dir. Sergei Bodrov), as well as in the acclaimed television series The Sopranos (US 1999–2006; prod. David Chase). Although a female counterpart to the Russian mafiosi also appears in thrillers and action-adventure films, such as Birthday Girl (UK/US 2001; dir. Jez Butterworth), the figure of the Russian woman generally holds a different significance. Russian males are confined largely to the self-contained, predominantly homosocial, diasporic world of the Russian Mafia that evades assimilation into its host country. By contrast, Russian women more often assimilate into their host countries through heterosexual coupling, whether via prostitution, romance, or marriage. Recent international art films [End Page 25] featuring such characters include Black and White (US/Russia 1992; dir. Boris Frumin), Postmark Paradise (US 2000; dir. Thompson E. Clay), Russian Doll (Australia 2001; dir. Stavros Kazantzidis), and Balalaika (Turkey 2001; dir. Ali Özgentürk). Israeli cinema has also produced several similar films, including the television film Kalinka Maya (Israel 1997; dir. Eitan Londner), the absurdist satire Circus Palestina (Israel 1998; dir. Eyal Halfon), the sensationalist drama The Holy Land (Israel 2001; dir. Eitan Gorlin), the postmodern pastiche What a Wonderful Place (Israel 2005; dir. Eyal Halfon), and two romantic comedies: Saint Clara (Israel 1995; dir. Ari Folman and Ori Sivan) and Yana's Friends (Israel 1999; dir. Arik Kaplun). We choose to focus our analysis on Saint Clara and Yana's Friends because both films address questions about Israeli immigration, particularly shifts in immigration policy in response to national identity, and both enjoyed considerable visibility on the national and international film circuits.

We read Saint Clara and Yana's Friends as immigration narratives that posit assimilation of female immigrants into Israeli society as amenable, indeed possible, only through romance with a sabra (native-born Israeli) man. Alone, Clara and Yana represent inassimilable immigrants, ones whose very identities embody indifference to, or disengagement from, Israeli-Zionist ideologies. Because these immigration narratives are told through the generic formulas of romantic comedy, they feature representations of women, who, invariably, mobilize their youth, beauty, and sexuality for survival within narrative structures of the relative powerlessness of immigrants. Saint Clara and Yana's Friends thus converge and depart from stereotypes of Russian women as femmes fatales, mail-order brides, or prostitutes on the international film circuit. By exploring the new character of the Russian immigrant woman within the specific context of Israeli cinema, we contribute to the study of the politics of Israeli cinematic representations of ethnicity, pioneered by Ella Shohat and continued...