1979: Cousins Carole and Jérôme go on an organized trip to Odessa, behind the Iron Curtain. During the day, posing as tourists celebrating their engagement, they visit monuments and museums. In the evening they slip away from the group and meet “refuseniks”, Jews persecuted by the Soviet regime for wanting to leave the country. While Carole is motivated by political commitment and a taste for risk, Jérôme’s motivation is Carole.
Jérôme Berkowicz and Carole Brikerman go through customs to enter the USSR. They’re cousins, both aged 18, and they’d look like the perfect young couple on an organized trip if it wasn’t for their incongruous raincoats and the sweat running down Jérôme’s face. Inside their clothes are hidden pockets full of books, key rings, chocolate and medication. If Jérôme, so different from Carole, wasn’t secretly in love with her, he would never have followed her into this.
“Hello, we are friends from France”, they whisper in the evenings in phone booths. Their mission is to make clandestine contact with and bring help to Soviet Jews who face persecution – the “RefuZeniks”. These are men like Viktor, a physicist who made a request for a visa for Israel and who found himself demoted to a street sweeper, separated from his wife and son who were allowed to leave.
The week spent in Leningrad will mark these amateur secret agents for life. They will have a range of humiliating, ambiguous and adventurous encounters. Against the menacing backdrop of the regime, they experienced fear, jealousy and disillusionment, before giving in to their love – but it will prove to be a rocky ride.
[Michael Ignatieff, Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs, is an internationally renowned writer, journalist, former politician, and expert on foreign affairs. He will speak about Friends from France in an extended Q&A session following one of the screenings.]