Cover photo: Credit: Andrejs Verhoustin. Courtesy of Israel Broadcasting Authority
In June of 1967, a six-day war was waged between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The ceasefire, signed June 11, did little to mend the fissures that started the war. Internationally, despite Israel coming out successfully (losing approximately 1,000 soldiers versus the roughly 20,000 spread between the other three countries), the political fallout was massive. Most importantly, Jerusalem, under Jordanian control, booted all Jews from its limits, effectively barring them from the Western Wall.
The USSR chose to cut diplomatic ties with the aggressive Israel, which made getting exit visas to Israel tricky. If a Jewish person, most of whom were forcibly assimilated into the Soviet lifestyle, wants to gain an exit visa during this time, they would have to quit their jobs and other absurd requirements. Even then, there was no guarantee of actually obtaining a visa. This policy would last for several years.
Now, it is 1970 and 14 Jews plot to steal a small plane. Step one is to ensure that they are the only people with tickets for that particular plane, under the auspices of heading to a wedding. Step two involves ditching the pilots after stopping to refuel. Step three is to escape the oppressive USSR.
“The plan took months to get ready and a single moment to be foiled…”
The plan took months to get ready and a single moment to be foiled. Mark Dymshits, Eduard Kuznetsov, Sylva Zalmanson, Yosef Mendelevitch, Yuri Fedorov, Aleksey Murzhenko, Arie Hanoch, Anatoli Altmann, Boris Penson, Israel Zalmanson, Mendel Bodnya, and Wolf Zalmanson arrived on June 15 only for the KGB to promptly arrest them all.
That history lesson is the thrust of Operation Wedding, which was the informal name the group gave their mission. It was widely called the Dymshits-Kuznetsov hijacking at the time. It is also the title of the new documentary about the incident and the people involved. Moreover, this isn’t just a facts oriented documentary as the director, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, is the daughter of Sylva and Eduard.
Operation Wedding mixes the usual archival news footage, public broadcasts from the time, and interviews with surviving members of the original group. The most engaging element though is the visit to the still standing, albeit abandoned prison which housed them for all those years. Anat and Sylva make a trip across Russia, worried about if the police may stop the filming process, or make outrageous demands for them to continue forth. They do get there, and Sylva recalls her stay intimately.
The most moving sequence in the entire film is when Sylva tells her daughter about dancing in her prison cell. Over the course of her four years there, Sylva spent half a year, 182 days to be exact, in solitary confinement. She was allotted 30-minutes a day, by herself, in the courtyard. She would recall her life before her imprisonment, how she used to be free, and she waltzed to those memories, to her friends and family she may not see again.
“…not a just-the-facts documentary, as it wears its heart on its sleeve…”
The story does not end with Sylva being free. Hounded by journalists, paraded about by politicians, she still felt trapped. It was even more difficult considering her comrades were still imprisoned. However, international pressure was mounting, passionately defending that they had the right to leave for their ancestral homelands. Protests were mounted in the USA and other countries to underscore how the punishment did not fit the crimes.
After the hijacking and the fallout from it, the USSR changed its emigration policies. The 10 years before the incident only saw a few thousand people given visas. Due to how terrible everything about imprisoning these people made them look, the next 10 years saw a massive increase, with around 347,100 visas approved.
Operation Wedding does a skillful job at highlighting the unfair imprisonment of the people involved in the Dymshits-Kuzentsov hijacking. It moves ably from the archival footage to the new interviews, without sacrificing momentum. However, it is not a just-the-facts documentary, as it wears its heart on its sleeve, and the emotional pull will leave the audience breathless.
Operation Wedding (2018) Directed by Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov. Starring Mark Dymshits, Eduard Kuznetsov, Sylva Zalmanson, Yosef Mendelevitch, Yuri Fedorov, Aleksey Murzhenko, Arie Hanoch, Anatoli Altmann, Boris Penson, Israel Zalmanson, Mendel Bodnya, Wolf Zalmanson.
9 Gummi Bears (out of 10)