The decades-long travails of Soviet Jews seeking permission to emigrate is the subject of Laura Bialis' exhaustive--if sometimes exhausting-documentary. Its title referring to those who were persecuted after asking to relocate to other countries, primarily Israel, "Refusenik" provides a comprehensive account that is all too timely in its depiction of the powerful effects of a combination of grass-roots activism and political pressure.
The film uses a wealth of interview footage, both from those who suffered (dissident Natan Sharansky is the most famous example) and numerous citizens from such countries as the U.S., England, France and Canada who were trying to help them from the other side. Also included are comments by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who allowed record numbers to emigrate during his tenure.
Much of the film's running time is spent documenting the oppression suffered by the Refuseniks after they applied for exit visas, and the underground organizations that sprung up for the purposes of smuggling information to the West, procuring banned books, etc. It takes a decidedly historical approach, detailing the subjection of Soviet Jews that began in force after the 1917 revolution and which virtually lasted until the fall of the Iron Curtain. But it primarily concentrates on the '60s and '70s-- detailing the progress of a movement that was initially pioneered by students and housewives--and on such landmark events as the massive 1987 protest in Washington that helped concentrate American public opinion on the topic.
Among the fascinating archival material on display are samples of the damning 16mm footage surreptitiously shot in the Soviet Union by Western activists posing as ordinary tourists.