Released October 8, 2021 (USA)
1 hour 28 minutes
Directed by Evgeny Ruman
Music Box Films
Hebrew and Russian with English subtitles
Comedy, Drama, Romance
“We are finally here, in the Holy Land–making a fresh start,” Victor Frenkel says hopefully as he raises a toast with his wife Raya. It is their first night in Tel Aviv after arriving from Russia in September 1990. But such optimism soon turns to bitter disappointment in the touching drama directed by Evgeny Ruman (The Damned, The Man in the Wall, Igor & the Cranes’ Journey) about aging olim struggling to find jobs and fit into their new environment.
Recently released in the United States, Golden Voices is a superbly acted comedy portraying the struggles of Victor (Vladimir Friedman) and Raya (Mariya Belkina), a middle-aged couple who, on witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, join thousands of others fleeing the turmoil by making aliyah to Israel. Ruman’s evident empathy for the plight of the characters in his film is likely explained by the fact that, as an 11-year-old, in the very same year in which the drama is set, he emigrated with his family from Belarus to Israel. Coincidentally, the actors playing the two principal characters also hail from the former Soviet Union–Friedman was born in Kursk and Belkina in Leningrad.
As newly arrived immigrants, Victor and Raya find themselves in a largely alien culture, unable to speak the language and under intense pressure to find paid work. Thrust into this challenging situation, they are forced to re-evaluate not only their own personal hopes and dreams but their future as a couple.
Once, the pair had been in hot demand, performing as “golden” voiceover stars in the former Soviet film industry. Indeed, Victor was so talented that he had dubbed the Russian language versions of Kramer vs Kramer (in which he voiced Dustin Hoffman) and Spartacus (where he was Kirk Douglas).
But in Israel, it becomes apparent that their skills are of no interest to employers. Some 900,000 or so Jews made aliyah to Israel in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and the couple receives scant assistance from the authorities. With rent of $500 a month to pay, times get desperate.
Against the backdrop of the First Gulf War, when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in August 1990, Victor finds an unpaid assignment recording Russian language warnings in case Israel should come under a chemical missile attack. Meanwhile, 62-year-old Raya is mortified to discover that her only offer of paid employment is to do shifts in an erotic call center, talking dirty to lonely and frustrated Russian olim.
With Israelis queuing to collect gas masks and preparing emergency shelters, the Frenkels dutifully attend Hebrew language classes while fretting about the lack of openings available to them. Raya, inevitably, takes up the job as a telephone sex operator located in a seedy warehouse and, in her embarrassment at what she has sunk to professionally, she lies to her husband that she is telemarketing perfume. But in truth she excels in her newfound role. Raya performs as the consummate actress (indeed Belkina, who plays her, was nominated as Best Actress by the Israeli Film Academy for her performance), deftly switching from one imaginary personality to another. For one caller she adopts the character of a fantasy 22-year-old virgin named Margarita while for another she pretends to be a mature, yet bored, housewife.
Meanwhile, Victor is forced to swallow his pride when he is recruited by two Russian crooks, Irina (Nadia Kucher) and Shurik (Vitali Voskoboinkov), who operate an illegal video business. Their enterprise consists of smuggling a hidden camera into theaters and secretly recording American movies off the screen. They then dub them into Russian, with Victor’s assistance, and rent out these pirated films. With the cops in hot pursuit of this bootlegging operation, Victor is in deeper trouble than he could have imagined. But his life only goes from bad to worse when, after spotting a newspaper advert about how Margarita can satisfy “all your fantasies” he calls the telephone number – and matters rapidly come to a head.
Golden Voices has already received several well-deserved accolades. It was the recipient of the 2020 Dorfman Best Film Award at the UK online Jewish Film Festival with the jury calling it “an original, touching and funny love story that explores the Russian immigrant experience in Israel. An intriguing film that stays with you, beautifully made, elegant and surprising.” The previous year, director Evgeny Ruman was the winner of the Honorable Mention category at the Haifa International Film Festival, as well as Best Film and Best Script at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It seems highly likely that this delightful drama is set to win many more fans in 2022.
Check your local JCC film festival schedule, educational venues, synagogues and screening services for viewing dates and times. Due to the requirements of filmmakers and distributors, the virtual viewing of some movies is limited to certain geographical areas. Restrictions vary but it is worth checking each title on the internet. Most virtual films are only available for a few days. Golden Voices is streaming on Amazon Prime and can be bought or rented from a number of outlets.