February 22, 2007
IFF: Belarus actress returns with a hat trick
After an absence of several years, Belarusian-born actress Yavgenia Dodina has returned to Israeli cinema -- and in a big way, releasing two films in the final months of 2006 and preparing for the release of a third early this new year.
No one needs you when you're down, the actress said recently about her character in "Love and Dance," the film that marked her return to the big screen in October. That may be true, but it's not an issue Dodina has had to deal with in her own career for quite some time, having long ago carved out a niche for herself in the world of Israeli cinema and theater.
When it comes to the country's large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, there is perhaps no performer who's succeeded more in entertainment, or conveyed a more fully developed sense of the U.S.S.R.'s former Jews than Dodina.
Playing a host of characters from a variety of backgrounds and time periods, the actress has become Israeli cinema's perpetual newcomer, the go-to performer for characters struggling -- and, only in some cases, triumphing -- in their pursuit of a secure and fulfilling existence in their adopted homeland.
A native of Mogilev, Belarus, Dodina arrived in Israel as a 25-year-old, still lacking fluent Hebrew but already carrying dreams of success on the Israeli stage. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Academy of Theater Arts -- GITIS, according to its Russian acronym -- the actress immigrated to Israel with other Soviet Jewish actors to establish a Russian-speaking theater in their new country, an endeavor that seemed risky at the time but continues to thrive more than 15 years later in the form of Jaffa's Gesher Theater. Now in her early 40s, the actress has won a formidable collection of awards for her stage work, and by the mid-1990s had begun her ascent within the world of Israeli TV and film as well.
An alumna of Moscow's well-regarded Mayakovsky Theater, the actress made her Israeli film debut in 1996, earning her first Israeli Academy Award nomination two years later for her role in "Gentila," a male road trip movie in which she played a key part. Her most celebrated recent movie is 2003's "Nina's Tragedies," a surprise best film winner at that year's Jerusalem Film Festival and the runaway winner -- with 11 statuettes -- at the Israeli Academy Awards.
But that was three years ago. In the intervening period, Dodina has focused on her stage work, finally returning to the big screen in the fall as Yulia, a ballroom dancing teacher trapped in a difficult marriage in "Love and Dance." A bittersweet look at the lives of immigrants from the U.S.S.R. and their Israeli-born children, the story is told through the eyes of the nearly adolescent Chen (Vladimir Volov), offering a look at the depressed grandmothers, frustrated parents and conflicted sons and daughters of Ashdod's Russian-speaking community.
The film's young hero abandons judo to join the world of competitive ballroom dancing, but it is Dodina's Yulia who becomes the film's unexpected heroine, with the dance teacher's skepticism about Chen slowly fading and re-emerging as concern for the troubled young boy. But even as the character begins to provide emotional support and advice to her young charge, she continues to reinforce her own thick skin, attempting to prove to the world that, when it comes to her own life, she doesn't believe in tears -- or, most of the time, in feelings.
A champion ballroom dancer in her former life, the character is a moving symbol of the sacrifices made by Israel's largest immigrant community, with Yulia's distinguished earlier life simply of no concern to the native-born Israelis who surround her. A lucrative professional dancing career has given way to ballroom lessons for teenagers at an Ashdod community center, as well as work as a pharmacy clerk in the evenings.
She plays a similarly steely character in her most recent film, "Dear Mr. Waldman," which screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. The movie, whose Hebrew title translates literally to "Letters to America," explores the relationships between two parents and their son in 1960s Tel Aviv, with the wife (Dodina) and son burdened by the knowledge that the father (Rami Heuberger) lost his previous family during the Holocaust.
The final movie in Dodina's unofficial comeback trilogy, tentatively titled "A Touch Away," will arrive in theaters later this year.
Known according to fans' tastes as either the first lady or diva of the Gesher Theater, Dodina's keeping up her work there as well, appearing this month in both Russian and Hebrew as the headlining performer in Medea and in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."
Categorizing the actress and her work is hard enough in Hebrew and Russian, and arguably even more difficult in English -- her first name alone, depending on which source you're using, can be spelled Evgenia, Yevgenia or Yevgenya, and there are also nicknames including Jenya and Doda. (Yavgenia the spelling used in this article, is also the spelling of choice in promotional material for "Dear Mr. Waldman.")
But when it comes to her own career and sense of herself as a performer, Dodina sees things quite simply.
"I feel fully Israeli," she said.