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Jerusalem Film Fest prizewinner seeks ‘cure’ for Russian-Israeli family’s divide

In debut documentary, Artyom Dubitski delves into a family mystery leading to an emotional reunion in Russia, as Ukraine war strains ties

Filmmaker Artyom Dubitski. (Jacob Rivkin/Times of Israel)
Filmmaker Artyom Dubitski. (Jacob Rivkin/Times of Israel)

There was stiff competition among this year’s documentary entries to the Jerusalem Film Festival for the event’s prestigious Diamond Award, with veteran talents and big-budget historical dramas taking center stage, but it was a first-time director’s searching family drama years in the making that took home the grand prize.

Artyom Dubitski’s intimate documentary “To Cure Longing” pits the director against his elder family members, as the young filmmaker unravels generational ruptures that have shaped his life and the lives of those around him.

The film tracks Dubitski’s mission to connect with a long-concealed grandmother in Russia, then evolves into a confrontation, an exploration of holes in his family story and a reconnection with his emotionally distant father.

Dubitski, 32, who immigrated from Ukraine to Israel as a child, decided to film his experience when his father, Lev, informed him they’d be visiting Lev’s mother, Baba Alevtina, whom Lev had not seen in over 30 years. The filmmaker said he was spurred on by curiosity about the mystery that led to Alevtina’s separation from the family, then found himself coming to understand the tale’s supporting characters — the family members who raised him — in a whole new light.

The result is a moving film running just over an hour, illustrating universal family bonds and the nuances of identity for Israelis with roots in the former Soviet Union. Scenes of a childhood split between Ukraine and Israel are set against memories of a family patriarch whose hard work brought the family to Israel, and an emotional reunion between mother, son, and grandson.

Dubitski’s experience as an immigrant causes him to leave pieces of himself scattered between the Ukrainian homeland of his father, the Israel of his childhood, and the Russia of his grandmother — pieces that were always felt, but had been obscured.

“I don’t belong anywhere, but I’m not a stranger either,” Dubistki said of his identity. Throughout the film, Dubitski sets himself the task of assembling these pieces, gently probing below the surface of those closest to him.

But if spanning the gap between himself and his family in Russia was his goal, the events of the past year have made the task more complicated. Visiting Ukrainian relatives is not possible, and Russia appears too dangerous and risky for foreigners, Dubitiski told The Times of Israel.

Many Israelis with roots in the former Soviet Union, like Dubitski, have relatives on both sides of the war, complicating their relationship with their former countries and their relatives who remain there. A poll early in the conflict showed that over two-thirds of Soviet immigrants in Israel blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war, a consensus that does little to help the immigrants contend with the invasion on a personal level.

“I don’t have tension inside, because I know who’s right and who’s wrong,” Dubitski said.

When speaking to Russian relatives, Dubitski said, he now stays away from politics, though he can sense their lack of enthusiasm for the war below the surface.

“The regime is very good and very efficient at scaring people, so you can’t blame the victim,” he said. “So I try to put the politics aside and communicate on a personal level.”

Dubitski said he has tried not to allow the war to affect his relationship with the Russian people, but that at the same time he’s felt his sense of Ukrainian identity grow as the conflict rages on. He said he’s been drawn to write in support of the Ukrainian effort, and has tried to circumvent the information wall put up by Russia by hearing from relatives inside the country.

The space between Dubitski and his Russian family can be felt across Russian-Israeli society, as many others are similarly distanced from their relatives. Now, the risk of the Jewish Agency shuttering in Russia threatens a return to an era when Russian Jewry may not be able to freely join relatives in Israel.

When Dubitski filmed his visit in 2019, the distance between his family members that had existed for decades seemed to melt away. Now, with the threat of a politically imposed separation between Soviet immigrants and their relatives in Russia, a new period of distance could be around the corner.

“I think it’ll just create more longings that I will need to cure,” Dubitski said. On the potential of having found the topic for a sequel, Dubitski laughs, saying, “I hope not.”

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