Annual Jewish Film Festival to educate, relate through screen

By: Sherri Kolade | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published May 5, 2017

WEST BLOOMFIELD — Decades after her parents and others attempted to escape the former Soviet Union by diverting a flight in Leningrad in 1970, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov shed some tears in the prison cell her mother had been held in for months.

In that cell in Riga, Latvia, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s mother, Sylva Zalmanson, 72, stood nearby her as that moment was captured on film in 2015 for the documentary “Operation Wedding.” 

The film about the arduous escape attempt is told from Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s perspective.

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, an Israeli filmmaker, said during a recent phone interview from Israel that Riga, occupied by the USSR in 1941, had been home to many Jewish dissidents.

The group plotted to escape via plane under the cover of traveling to a wedding. 

“The group’s pilot, who once flew for the Red Army, would take over the controls and fly the 16 runaways over the Soviet border into Sweden, bound for Israel,” states a synopsis of the film. However, the group was stopped at the airport just before boarding. They are considered to be heroes in the West, but terrorists in Russia to this day, the synopsis states. 

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said she’s been told throughout her life that her parents are heroes, and she wanted to tell their story.

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s mother was arrested and given a trial in 1970 and was sent to a women’s prison camp near Siberia until her release in 1974. Her mother’s sentence had been for 10 years. 

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s  father and the pilot both received death sentences, which were commuted to 15 years in labor camps. Her father, the pilot and three others were released in a U.S. exchange for two Soviet spies after nine years, she said. 

“It was dramatic, and you cried a lot, but (it) also has some funny moments, and the audience (was) very surprised and they laugh harder because they didn’t expect it to be funny — my parents are really funny people,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said.

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said she broke down in tears upon seeing the prison cell because she hadn’t realized they were going to her mom’s prison. 

“I was told we are going to KGB house,” she said. “But then we walked in and I see that we are in prison. My mother started mumbling, ‘Is this it? No. Maybe this?’ And suddenly I understood this was her prison.”

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov added that she was 35 when that moment was filmed; her mother had been arrested at age 25. 

“I imagined her being locked there, and I couldn’t stop the tears. I didn’t know how bad the conditions were until I was there,” she said.  

Her mother and father, Edward Kuznetsov, 78, now live in Israel, and the prison today is the Museum of Occupation. 

“Anyone can visit, and after the film’s premiere in Riga this fall, we will have tours there as well,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said. 

She said that her mother was in Riga for a few months before the trial, and afterward she and her then-husband, Kuznetsov, were sent to the Gulag, which administered a system of forced labor camps. 

“Of course, we couldn’t film in Gulag. In general, they were changing prisons and camps, so there was no one place all the time,”  Zalmanson-Kuznetsov said

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s 63-minute film will be featured with 29 others during the 19th annual Lenore Marwil Detroit Jewish Film Festival May 7-18. 

The festival includes documentaries and features from international and local perspectives. 

The films include the Oscar-nominated documentary “Life, Animated,” about Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind’s son Owen, who has autism. Also included is “A Quiet Heart,” which delves into the clashes between religious and secular communities in Jerusalem, according to the press release.

“Our goal is to create a festival with something for everyone in the community. If you like grandiose ideas or you like to laugh until you cry, with 30 films, there are so many choices,” Beth Robinson, the festival’s director, said in a press release.

A number of the films will include discussions with the filmmaker or a facilitator, according to the release. 

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov will discuss her film following its showing, which will be at 5 p.m. May 15.

The Berman Center for the Performing Arts will also host the “WDET: Framed” series exhibit “Hummus: Heartland,” created by producer Zak Rosen, of “Hummus! The Movie.” 

Rosen collected stories about metro Detroit’s Middle Eastern food culture along with photographer Marvin Shaouni, according to the release. The exhibit features audio stations and Shaouni’s photographs, and Rosen and Shaouni will speak after the 8 p.m. May 17 screening.

Robinson said that movie is one of her favorites because she has worked with interfaith groups for a number of years, and the community is “coming together around hummus.”

She said the complementary exhibit gives the film a 3-D aspect.

She said it’s an interesting look at the question of who first thought to mash chickpeas and eat them, and to whose culture does that belong.

She added that the film doesn’t really answer the question because the answer is as obvious as it is delicious.

“It belongs to all of us — we can all eat (mashed) chickpeas,” she said, laughing. 

Robinson said the film shows a Muslim woman, a Christian Arab and an observant Jew in Israel who all have hummus restaurants.

“We see their story, what it’s like to run the restaurants,” she said, adding that each film should speak to people culturally, historically or artistically.

“Where we are at this moment in this history — sort of like a record album … each song is its own story. … But the festival is like this collection, which is a bigger picture.”

Screenings will be held at The Berman Center for the Performing Arts, 6600 W. Maple Road in West Bloomfield; the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave. in Detroit; and the Maple Theater, 4135 W. Maple Road in Bloomfield Township. For more information on times and listings for the film festival, go to www.jccdet.org.

To see the “Operation Wedding” trailer, go to youtu.be/ef2x9CjitYo.