Refusenik: News Flash! Soviets Oppress Jews

The strain of living and scheming under a totalitarian regime can make for great drama, as The Lives of Others proved. Unfortunately, Laura Bialis' ambitious documentary about the Jews of the Soviet Union, and the grassroots campaign in the U.S. and Britain in the '70s and '80s to publicize their ill treatment and win their freedom, fails to deliver much of an emotional punch. A record of a successful human-rights effort, the film has a resolutely uplifting and slightly self-congratulatory undercurrent that robs the unfolding events of any real tension. The other problem is both chronological and geographical; in its zeal to cover a broad range of events in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union over a period of some 30 years, the doc flattens out the highs and the lows into a stream of equally weighted episodes. On the plus side, Bialis serves up a comprehensive assemblage of terrific archival footage, and cuts it together at an aggressive pace. She dispenses with a narrator in favor of interviews with a range of key participants, notably the most famous refusenik, Natan Sharansky. Refusenik is a solid piece of work with undeniable educational and historical value, but its inability to orchestrate a dramatic crescendo prevents it from connecting with a wider audience.

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