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Young Russians play out their ‘Birth Right’ in Israeli short film

Filmmaker Inbar Horesh offers a brief but telling glance at questions of Jewish identity among tourists who meet immigrant soldiers from their homeland

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

In the 24 minutes of “Birth Right,” Inbar Horesh’s new short film, she delves into Russian immigration to Israel and the intricacies of who is a Jew, and takes a critical look at Taglit-Birthright Israel, an organization that sponsors free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults.

Inspired by the true story of the lead actress, Natasha Olshanskaya, the film takes place during a Russian Birthright trip, as young Russians on a tour bus stop for the night in the Israeli desert, where they meet two IDF soldiers, also of Russian heritage.

The girls preen and flirt, but one, Natasha, quietly grappling with an undisclosed argument with her mother back home, connects with the shyer of the two soldiers. Their connection helps unfold the story of how Russians, many without strong Jewish or Israeli backgrounds, end up living in Israel and serving in the army.

The film feels deeply authentic; the characters, all played by Russian speakers, act out aspects of their own or their families’ histories as they are introduced to a land that is far from their homeland. They are enticed, whether by the hunky Israeli-Russian soldiers or the warm breezes of an Israeli winter.

For filmmaker Horesh, a chance meeting with Olshanskaya brought her the story of a young woman alone in Israel and undergoing conversion to Judaism.

Nataliya Olshanskaya, the lead character whose personal story inspired Inbar Horesh’s short film, ‘Birth Right,’ focusing on issues of Israeli nationalism (Courtesy ‘Birth Right’ PR)

“What surprised me as an Israeli is that she wasn’t Jewish at all, didn’t grow up Jewish, it wasn’t part of her life and even so, she came here,” said Horesh, who had been unfamiliar with the larger political and religious issues over who is considered a Jew under Israel’s immigration laws.

Horesh also learned about Taglit trips to Israel for Russians, including efforts to introduce the visitors to Russian-born Israeli soldiers, and what she saw as an emphasis on getting these young Russian visitors with Jewish roots to meet and fall in love with Israelis from similar backgrounds.

‘Birth Right,’ a short film by Inbar Horesh that sheds light on questions of Russian Jewish and Israeli identity (Courtesy PR)

Horesh wrote the first draft of the film the evening after meeting Olshanskaya, but then expanded her research, joining a Taglit trip and interviewing people who had been on one of the trips or were counselors for a Taglit group.

Though she felt that her initial script better fit a short film, she realized there was a much larger story that would later work for a feature film.

“It just grabbed me,” said Horesh. “The story touched me personally because I’ve never felt part of the Israel story, that sense that we’re chosen and yet we’re outsiders in this world, which is the paradox of our national story.”

It was important for Horesh to work with Russian speakers in the film, and during auditions, she began hearing the stories of the actors themselves.

Olshanskaya, who inspired the script and plays the main character, was not an actor and initially didn’t want to audition for the role, but later agreed and after making the film, began to study acting.

Horesh is now working on a feature film with some of the same characters, grappling with the questions of identity.

Inbar Horesh, whose latest film, ‘Birth Right,’ grapples with questions of Jewish and Israeli identity in the Russian community (Courtesy Inbar Horesh)

“I had a feeling through my research for the film that I was preparing groundwork for a feature,” said Horesh. “It’s a huge story; with the short film, I just touched upon this world and with a longer feature I can really get into it.”

Horesh studied filmmaking at Minshar Film Academy, where she has been teaching directing courses for the last four years. Her award-winning graduation film, “The Visit” (Cannes official selection – Cinefondation selection 2014), was shown in over fifty festivals and was nominated for an Ophir award.

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