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    TJC Movies
  • America & World Jewry
  • Feature Films
  • History &
    Remembrance
  • Israel
  • TJC Original Series
  • The Portion
  • Jews of Color
  • Srugim
  • Rabbis Roundtable
  • The Salon
  • With the Editors
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  • Modern Jewish Mom
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  • insearchhappinesshomeimage.jpg

    Directed by: Alexander Gutman Rating: TV-PG
    Release Date: 2006 Running Time: 56
    Language: Russian (english subtitles) Genre: Documentary
    More Info: wikipedia Category: World Jewry


    Few know that Josef Stalin created the first Jewish state. Situated on the remote eastern border of Siberia, the Jewish Autonomous Region was mostly ignored by the rest of the world, but still exists to this day. In Search of Happiness takes a poetic look at the dwindling population of Birobidzhan, the forgotten Jewish homeland, whose only remaining synagogue holds services only twice a week — to pray to Jesus.

    “The easiest thing in the world is to leave, to quit,” explains one of the few practicing Jews in Birobidzhan. He continues, explaining that staying is only made harder by the fact that “no one wants to invest any money in this city, because they don’t want two homelands. Jews in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev all receive money. But the only money we get is to help the Jews who are here to leave.”

    A cinema verite style documentary, In Search of Happiness follows Boris Rak, an old man and original citizen of Birobidzhan, through his daily life, spent with his wife Masha and his farm animals that they’ve named after political leaders. Stressing human vulnerability, the documentary illustrates how its subjects’ initial expectations for a Jewish homeland of their own have been met with disappointment. Nature has reduced the once prosperous communal farm into a swampy, puddled mush. Physical handicaps cripple the elderly population. But despite the fact that Rak and Masha are subject to the negative effects of rain, aging, politics, and other’s people’s decisions, they bravely persevere.

    Contemporary footage of Rak and his fellow Birobidzhaners is edited together with historical footage of Jews flocking to Eastern Russia, contrasting their once-high hopes for the future with today’s disappointing realities. Stunning landscape shots and a sensitive eye for color lend the art house documentary a poetic sensibility that highlights the beauty in its subjects’ simple, humble lives.

    In Search of Happiness blurs the line between pathetic and noble. Knock-kneed, Boris Koufman needs a cane to make his long, slow walk to the synagogue, which he opens every morning around seven. A long silent shot follows him as he makes his determined steps. The viewer can admire his strength or pity his frailty. Similarly, though Rak is pleased when he wins an award as the “Honorary Citizen of the Jewish Autonomous Republic,” simultaneously the republic’s communal farm is officially declared bankrupt.

    With a balanced eye, the documentary offers an intimate look at individuals whose unglamorous lives could either be pitied for their bleakness or heralded for their endurance.

    In Search of Happiness also does an impeccable job of capturing the aesthetics of the region, whose meagerness creates a cozy warmth. Indoor plants and colorfully patterned drapes distract from the chipped paint on the walls of Rak’s house, and his technologically archaic record player is more appealing than a high definition sound system could ever be.

    Unfortunately, the future of Birobidzhan looks bleak. Younger generations continue to move away as the older population slowly fills the graveyard. Rak’s children left Birobidzhan for Israel and, although things are hard there for them at the moment, they do not plan to return home. Masha laments these developments as she and her husband visit the cemetery to pay respect to their deceased family members. Despite their advanced age, they’re agile enough to climb up ladders, repaint the red Soviet stars on the graves, and tidy the site.

    But as they work, an unspoken question lingers: when the time comes, who will be left to tidy their graves?





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