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Review: FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM [UK Jewish Film Festival 2019]

Elaine Bermitz headed to HOME Manchester as part of UK Jewish Film Festival to see From Slavery to Freedom, a moving documentary about the refusenik movement…

While millions of Jews found refuge in the new Jewish state, over a million Soviet Jews were stopped by the authorities from leaving. Enduring horrendous suffering, a group of dissident Jews, known as Refuseniks, fought relentlessly for freedom. From Slavery to Freedom tells the story of this movement and the person who has become its symbol, Natan Sharansky, found guilty of high treason in 1977. It is his bravery and that of his wife Avital that finally brought him, and so many of his fellow Russian Jews, home.

The refusenik movement began in Russia in the 1960s and described those Jews who continually applied to leave Russia to go to Israel despite the state’s constant refusal to issue visas and it’s  imposition of many penalties the applicants encountered. That they eventually succeeded is down to the inspirational acts of Natan and Avital Sharansky. Their ceaseless heroism during the 70s and 80s, alerted the world to the USSR’s antisemitism and the savagery of the regime.

This documentary, made by Russian ex-pat Arkadi Kogan uses testimony from contemporary Refuseniks, Sharansky, his family, religious leaders, and those who supported their campaign at the time. Sharansky himself revisits places where he was charged, imprisoned or forced into hard labour. This brilliant mathematician and human rights activist had applied repeatedly to leave the USSR along thousands of others it largely retold the story for a new generation. Led by him they challenged the state in every possible way, gaining international attention by their activities, knowing that they would put themselves and their families in the danger of losing their livelihoods, their children’s educational chances and their jobs.

The USSR was unwilling to let the Jews out, fearing that they would encourage an exodus of other minorities to countries who would take them in, and that the savagery of life in the USSR would be eventually revealed. His beloved wife and fellow refusenik Natasha (now Avital) left Russia in 1974 and continued to publicise their appalling treatment for the next nine years. Firstly in an indifferent Israel, then Europe and especially the United States, seizing every opportunity to keep Sharansky and the Refuseniks in the news until he was finally freed in 1985 under pressure from President Reagan.

Kogan’s film uses a mix of black and white cartoons as well as animated figures to lighten some of the more grim moments and Sharansky himself remembered that he tried to look dignified as he walked to freedom over the ‘bridge of spies’, but was in fact holding up his trousers as the KGB has even taken his belt from him!

Premiered in the Knesset and sponsored by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, this was a fitting reminder that human rights campaigns hold governments to account, enabling hundreds of thousands to leave closed regimes and expose the most widespread abuses by sheer persistence and heroism. A grim and worthwhile reminder to governments that their actions cannot be hidden behind iron curtains or walls.