- Friends from France directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski
At the beginning of the 2013 French drama Friends from France a young Parisian couple comes to Odessa, a Soviet city on the Black Sea, ostensibly on tour. The year is 1979, and the relationship between the Soviets and the West is tense, therefore, our couple and other tourists are closely scrutinized, their every step monitored by the omnipresent KGB agents. This is why the couple’s mission is so difficult: in fact, these two are no ordinary lovebirds on an exotic quest, but rather Jewish cousins who have come to the evil empire on a mission to help their less fortunate co-religionists by bringing them a few brochures about Israel, answering their questions about Judaism, and expressing solidarity. Carole (in a powerful performance by Soko, a French singer and actor) is a rambunctious emotional type, a dark beauty with a mop of curly hair, who is willing to take risks; whereas her cousin Jérôme (Jérémie Lippman), a bespectacled pale intellectual, is more cautious and cynical. Still, both are intent on escaping the tightly overseen tour events and embarking on their own journey, disguised as romantic walks. Soon, it becomes clear that the love affair is much more than a disguise: Jérôme has been infatuated with Carole for some time, and now that they are together in a dangerous environment, the erotic tension between them becomes unavoidable. Still, their personal drama is not the main challenge to their mission, and neither is KGB surveillance.
The main dramatic tension of the film—and the main challenge to the couple’s mission—is their relationships with local Jews, a small group of refuse-niks whom they succeed in meeting secretly. The characterization of refuse-niks is the strongest suit of this film, as it revises and complicates the image of the refusenik in the popular Jewish imagination. The term itself dates to the late 1960s, when Soviet Jews, emboldened by the victorious 1967 Six-Day War, started to apply en masse for exit visas and were routinely denied. This diverse group of people—Jewish nationalists, human rights activists, various dissidents, and even economic opportunists, became known in the West as refuseniks, those refused the right to emigrate. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet emigration movement drew wide support from American, Israeli, and European Jewish activists, many of them college students and young people.1 In fact, the Soviet emigration movement is usually considered part of the Jewish revival movement, but it is equally important to see it as a youth movement. It is fair to say that most refusenik activists were young professionals, suffocated in the Soviet environment and wanting not only to live openly as Jews, but also to realize their tremendous creative and intellectual potentials. To wit, in the 1970s, they organized underground research symposia, seminars, art shows, and publications.
Soviet Jews who escaped the tight grip of Brezhnev’s regime often joined the Western activists and became their mascots. Consequently, refuseniks were seen as heroic figures—a symbol of Jewish triumph, of Jewish solidarity [End Page 216] the world over—but even this limited portrait has rarely been seen on screen, and never in a narrative feature. The documentary Refusenik (2008, dir. Laura Bialis) presents its protagonists as heroes who persevered through Soviet prisons and persecutions, and joined, valiantly, their Jewish brethren in the free world.
The accomplishment of Friends from France is that it avoids falling in the trap of simplistic stereotypes. Many refuseniks faced tremendous challenges, and we are reminded of the high human price they had to pay for their flight, which is often overlooked. In Friends from France, refuseniks are not supermen spouting ideological slogans and heroically standing up to the vicious KGB. Instead, they are flawed characters—paranoid, depressed, traumatized by the years of exclusion and persecution, seeking refuge in drugs, or sex, or alcohol. They populate a dark oppressive world, as is recreated on screen through shadowy shots, filmed in hues of grey...