“Israel is the historical homeland of our ancestors, it is to this land that our grandparents and great-grandparents dreamed to return. And you, all of you, have the opportunity to fulfill this dream and to return home.”
These are the first words we hear in Israeli director Inbar Horesh’s 2019 short film “Birthright.” They are delivered to a group of young Russians on a tour bus in Israel by their group leader.
The group, which includes main character Natasha, played by and based on Nataliya Olshanskaya, is in Israel on a Birthright trip.
Birthright Israel, a nonprofit organization, has sponsored trips to Israel for over 750,000 young adults from around the world since its founding in 1999. All young adults between the ages of 18 and 32 are eligible, provided they are Jewish; one or both birth parents are Jewish, or the individual has converted to Judaism.
Partially funded by the Government of Israel, these all-inclusive trips have been criticized recently, with some Jews saying the trips do not encompass both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nataliya Olshanskaya’s Story and her Jewish Identity
In the film, Horesh explores the complicated effects of Birthright through the intricacies of Judaism and identity.
Horesh based the main character of Natasha on Olshanskaya, who she met by chance. Olshanskaya was raised Christian with paternal Jewish roots, and heard about Birthright coincidentally. She saw it as an opportunity to travel, but ended up staying in Israel after the trip.
“She didn’t [grow up] Jewish, she never considered herself Jewish, and yet she was encouraged in a very deliberate way to immigrate to Israel,” said Horesh.
Horesh was so interested in Olshanskaya’s story that she went home the day she met her and wrote the first draft of the script for “Birth Right.” She said that as a native Israeli, she had never heard of an experience like Olshanskaya’s, but as she learned later, it was a common one.
Natasha’s character in the film, like Olshanskaya, is Jewish only through her father. However, according to Jewish law, religion and ancestry are passed down through the mother. In one scene, Natasha’s friend, Masha, asserts that Natasha isn’t Jewish. Her other friend, Asya, tells Natasha she won’t be able to get married in Israel.
This scene represents how Horesh successfully portrays the turmoil Natasha feels as she comes to grips with her identity and the exclusion she faces based on the technicalities of Jewish identity.
The film carefully and beautifully delivers the difficulty Natasha experiences in attaining actualization and coming to terms with her identity.
“I’m interested in dealing with identity aspects in cinema, and I’m interested in finding new ways to approach Israeli politics, so for me, this story was like a cinematic goal. An opportunity to approach many topics that are very hard to approach in Israel, but from a complete new perspective,” Horesh said.
Israeli Identity as Portrayed in “Birthright”
Horesh, whose previous films include “The Visit” (2014), “Crossing” (2015), and “Taxi” (2015), saw “Birth Right” as an opportunity to explore not only Jewish identity through Natasha, but also Israeli identity through another character, Ilya.
In the film, the Birthright group is introduced to two Israeli soldiers. One of them, named Ilya, explains to the group that he was born in Russia but moved to Israel when he was three years old. Horesh used his character to represent the difficulties of immigration.
“He grew up in Israel, so he hardly speaks any Russian, and it’s hard for him to relate to the group. But at the same time, in Israel, he was treated as a Russian,” Horesh said.
Ilya personifies the intricacies of Israeli identity and its interactions with the immigrant experience.
Between the two characters, Horesh is successful in using Israel as a lens to explore the intricacies of identity, wherever you may come from.
Director Inbar Horesh on Casting
The characters Natasha and Ilya, as well as others, are played by non-actors. Horesh initially started accepting auditions from non-actors because of the difficulties of finding young actors who are Russian speakers in Israel.
However, as Horesh went through the audition process, she found just how common experiences like Nataliya’s were among non-native Israelis. She said that at some point, the auditions turned into hearing immigrants’ stories.
“It became like a session of interviews, actually. I was just collecting more and more stories,” Horesh said.
Among those non-actors that did formally audition, Horesh said there was particular resonance with Ilya’s character, who struggles to fit into Russia or Israel.
“Every one of the people that read the script, it doesn’t matter from which background, for all of them, this was the character that they most related to…this feeling of being in between and not completely fitting anywhere,” Horesh said.
This demonstrated to Horesh how common the experiences like the ones she portrayed in “Birth Right” are in Israel; she had heard far more stories than she could include in the short. Horesh is now using these experiences to produce a feature film, which she is in the midst of working on.