Dec. 22, 2020
By SOPHIE HERSHFIELD
In only 24 minutes, Israeli filmmaker Inbar Horesh delightfully unpacks a complex account of identity, language, and belonging in her short film Birth Right.
This brief but evocative piece is based on the true story of its lead actress, Natasha Olshankaya, and the experience of a Russian tour group on a trip offered by Taglit Birthright, an organization that takes Jewish teens from around the world on trips to Israel.
The girls we meet have different reasons for taking the trip: Natasha is hoping to escape family drama at home, while another girl is hoping to find a husband. The organization’s ulterior motive – encouraging Jewish immigration – lingers in the background.
Horesh portrays some of the lighthearted drama of a classic Birthright trip: Trying to “hook up” with cute Israeli soldiers, getting drunk and dancing to Hebrew songs that no actual Israeli listens to, trying to tan but accidentally burning after a lengthy camel ride – while also touching on many of the complicated rules around who is or is not a Jew according to Israel’s immigration laws.
Horesh explains: “Israel is deliberately and officially encouraging immigration of people that don’t consider themselves Jews and didn’t grow up Jews.” While the film may not seem political on its surface, it subtly draws out highly contentious themes and raises important questions.
One of the big questions Horesh contemplated while making the film, as she told the CJR, is “if Israel is encouraging immigration of non-Jews…why is Israel avoiding giving citizenships to people who already live here?” The film carefully challenges notions of nationhood and Jewish identity by telling the stories of characters whose connection to Israel and Judaism does not match the stories typically paraded out to Birthright’s donors.
While it is not uncommon to see Russian-speaking Israelis in Israeli media, their portrayal strikes a notably different tone in Birth Right. Horesh remarked that while casting Russian speaking extras for the film, many actors said it was their first time playing a normal Russian young person, rather than one to do with “drug dealing, prostitution, or being a cleaning lady.” Instead, Horesh portrays the multi-faceted experiences of being Jewish in Russia and being Russian in Israel.
The film, in Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles, showcases two soldiers who are asked to talk to the Birthright tour group, Ilya, who speaks in broken Russian, and Shlomi, who fluently sells the fantasy of immigration to Israel. Some of the trip participants are decked out in Magen David necklaces, while others admit they hardly feel Jewish at all.
Horesh mostly cast non-actors and ended up incorporating many of their own personal stories into the film. Rather than telling the more mainstream story of Jewish nationalism, she does not shy from showing the many sides of Israeli and Jewish identity.
In the film’s cleverly crafted final sequence, Horesh shows two tour buses trying to pass each other on a narrow bridge. This scene smartly shows, as Horesh explains, “the feeling of an ongoing factory, this assembly line” of Birthright trips that pass through Israel’s most popular tourist spots every year. Horesh takes a step back from the very individual and personal stories to remind audiences of the sheer scale of this tourism and immigration industry.
As a tour guide proudly declares, “Welcome to your historical homeland,” Horesh shows us a group of genuine, confused, and excited young people who are exploring a new country for the first time – a country they are told they belong to, despite its troubled history and complex present.
Horesh beautifully dances around complex and political issues of identity and nationalism in a touching, personal, sometimes tragic but also funny way. Her film is artfully shot and carefully constructed to be subtle and vulnerable.
The film leaves its audience contemplating critical questions about homogeneity, nationhood, and identity, and provides a nuanced and intimate connection to individuals who have restarted life in a new country where they do not know the people, the language, or how exactly they fit into their “historical homeland.”
To view a trailer : https://vimeo.com/357166278
Birth Right can be seen at several upcoming film festivals, including the Toronto Jewish Film Festival June 3-13, 2021.
Sophie Hershfield is a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg and studies literature, film, and culture.