Finding a career that combines her interests in art, social justice, history and international politics is a dream come true for filmmaker Laura Bialis. Her documentary Refusenik,
The movie will run for a week, and Bialis will be available at the 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. screenings on Sunday to answer questions about her experiences making the film, which has been described as “a tapestry of first-person accounts of heroism, sacrifice and, ultimately, liberation,” as told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain – many of whom survived punishment in Soviet Gulag labor camps.
The screenings are a coming home of sorts for Bialis, a 1991 San Marcos High School graduate whose parents, Ellen and Gary Bialis, live in Santa Barbara. She had her first job as an intern for Rod Lathim at the now-closed Access Theatre. “It’s interesting because that was a nonprofit, and now I’m running a nonprofit for the arts and Rod is on the board of my nonprofit,” Bialis said.
She’s certainly come full circle.
, told the story of Holocaust-survivor-turned-civil-rights activist Judy Meisel, a Santa Barbara resident. The film chronicles Meisel’s journey back to Eastern Europe to retrace her wartime journey: from the Kovno Ghetto through the Stutthof Concentration Camp, and ultimately to Denmark, where she was liberated and restored to health by an outpouring of Danish compassion.
Tak For Alt enjoyed a brief theatrical distribution, aired on PBS and won many awards – from the Anti-Defamation League and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among others. It is being used by teachers in more than 30 states and has been implemented into history curricula in many school districts.
The seeds for the development of Refusenik were actually planted at a screening of Tak For Alt in Omaha, Neb. “After every screening, people would come up to me and want me to make a movie about them or their grandmother or someone else they knew,” Bialis said. “We were inundated with all these requests, but these people in Omaha were just adamant that I meet this activist, Shirley Goldstein. She actually gave the first seed grant for the movie. We used it to do a trailer, which we used to raise the money to make Refusenik.”
While the story of the Refuseniks isn’t widely known, it’s a powerful one. In the early 1960s, reports came to the West of blatant anti-Semitism in the Communist-controlled Soviet Union. The government closed synagogues, the study of Hebrew was forbidden, Soviet Jews were required by law to carry “internal passports” identifying their Jewish heritage, they were barred from studying at many universities and they were refused entrance into selected professions. Yet those who asked permission to emigrate were told they could never leave, effectively making the Soviet Jews prisoners in their own country.
Bialis interviewed more than 100 people and shot more than 200 hours of interview footage to tell the story of the Refuseniks, who took the unprecedented step of publicly challenging the Communist regime. The film chronicles their stories of courageous activism and tales of hardship: the development of an underground Hebrew school; risky smuggling of information to the West; fear of being arrested; shock of being brought to trial on trumped up charges; and suffering in prison or in exile merely for demanding freedom.
“My first degree (she did her undergraduate work at Stanford, followed by USC film school) is in history, so I actually approached it like I was doing some sort of archiving project,” she said. “I started out by asking people about how they were involved…it was such a grassroots movement. The rallies would get hundreds of thousands people involved.”
Eventually, the activists’ incessant demands pushed the issue and legislators enacted a law limiting the amount of business the United States would conduct with countries that violated human rights – the first time the United States placed restrictions on a country for rights abuses of its own population. Nuclear disarmament negotiations with the USSR included U.S. demands for a change in Soviet emigration policies and, in 1989, the Soviet Union succumbed to international pressure and the gates were opened.
“It might be the most successful human rights movement of all time,” Bialis said. “At the end of the movement, 1.5 million Jews got out of the Soviet Union. It was a very inspiring thing.”
She worked on the project for five years, traveling around the world to track down pieces of the story. “Though it’s about a historical movement, this is a really timely issue because there are still human rights violations going on around the world,” she said. “Sometimes we need to be reminded of what is possible if you believe that what you’re doing is right.”