If filmmaker Laura Bialis missed talking to any one person involved in the four-decade struggle to liberate Soviet Jews, I doubt it was for lack of trying. From little old lady activists in Nebraska to Mikhail Gorbachev himself, "Refusenik" bears witness exhaustively, at points exhaustingly, to a history in danger of being lost to time and happy endings. The result is a documentary that plays like a fat, satisfying work of nonfiction literature - the final word because it seems to contain every word.
Like a book, "Refusenik" is organized into chapters tracing the rise of post-WWII Russian anti-Semitism - the latest, totalitarian model of a long and virulent strain. The difference is that Israel now existed as a place rather than an idea, and that the Jews of Russia gradually drew from its existence the strength to resist.
From initial efforts to bring underground Hebrew lessons to Soviet citizens who'd lost touch with their roots, the movement became focused on a group of dissidents in Moscow and nearby cities, among them future Time cover subject Natan Sharansky and a force of nature named Vladimir Slepak. "Refusenik" covers such events as the 1970 Leningrad hijacking, a failed attempt to escape the country by plane, and the sad plight of ballet dancer Valery Panov and his wife, Galina, fired from the Bolshoi at the peak of their powers for the crime of asking to emigrate.
The term "refusenik," in fact, came from the Soviet response to those who applied for exit visas, rather than from the Jews' own stance of resistance. Slepak and others lost jobs and slipped into official limbo, working as elevator operators to get by. "We were naked among wolves," says Roald Zelichenok. "Our only weapon was public opinion."
He means public opinion in the United States. The other half of "Refusenik" is the growing awareness among American Jews - individuals first, then institutions, then the US government itself - that shaming the enemy might have results. Through archival footage and an apparently endless series of interviews, Bialis shows how grassroots marches in the early 1960s built to successful 1970s efforts by senators like Henry "Scoop" Jackson to tie trade agreements to human rights progress.
The talking-head parade would dry the film right out if not for the startling, even amusing human drama that keeps poking through the historical fabric. When a group of American activists traveled to Russia on a package tour, they quickly diverted to their real mission: offering solidarity to the refuseniks in person. Sharansky marvels at these "simple Jews" so far from home; movie footage of KGB agents following Slepak's bus says wordless volumes about the gulf between the two worlds. On the flight back to the states, grandmother Shirley Goldstein of the Omaha Committee for Soviet Jewry hid audiotapes and documents under her clothes.
A late-'70s crackdown sent many of the refuseniks to labor camps and psychiatric institutions; the arrival of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev began the slow thaw. The Slepaks were allowed to emigrate in 1987 - the footage of them embracing their son at the airport is tremendously moving - and then, in 1989, the Soviet empire fell and the issue suddenly became moot. The movie, painstaking to a fault, memorializes "the naivete of young people that can change history." It willingly forgoes a sharper focus to welcome everybody home.