A match made in desperation: New Israeli film unveils plight of mail-order-brides

BOSTON — The war in Ukraine has dominated headlines about the country for the last 13 months, but a new Israeli feature film focuses on an overlooked issue in the former Soviet republic that is no less relevant today — mail-order brides.

Directed by Israeli filmmaker Michal Vinik“Valeria is Getting Married” is about two Ukrainian sisters, Christina and Valeria. Each leaves their home country for arranged marriages in Israel, but their respective journeys have very different outcomes. Christina is comfortably, if not passionately, wed to Sabra marriage broker Michael. However, once Valeria encounters would-be Israeli fiance Eitan in person, it’s disappointment-at-first-sight for her. She locks herself in her sister’s bathroom, throws away the key and will not come out until Eitan leaves.

“Love is global today, like any other commodity,” Vinik told The Times of Israel.

“Valeria is Getting Married” won the 2022 Ophir Award for best screenplay, one of its 13 nominations for Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. It was also recognized by the Haifa International Film Festival, where it won best film and best screenplay. It screens in-person at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, March 19. The film will also be viewable online, along with other selections, from March 26-29 when the festival goes virtual — and international.

“I felt maybe these deals can say something deeper about relations between genders — maybe between men and women, but also women and women, and women and men,” said Vinik.

The film has a multi-national cast: Dasha Tvoronovich, the actress who plays Valeria, is from Ukraine. Like her character in the film, she does not understand Hebrew. During the film’s shooting, Tvoronovich had to deal with other challenges affecting the wider world, including travel to Israel in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was the COVID time, before vaccines,” Vinik said. “Everything was very complicated. Then the war between Russia and Ukraine started, and everything was even more complicated.”

Conducting research into mail-order brides in Israel took Vinik to unconventional places. This included visiting a Hebrew-language website advertising arranged marriages and a similar YouTube site hosted by an American man and his Ukrainian wife.

Christina, played by Lena Fraifeld, and Valeria, played by Dasha Tvoronovich, in ‘Valeria is Getting Married’ by director Michal Vinik. (Courtesy)

“It’s diverse, it’s a global thing,” she said, noting that it is less common in Israel than in the US, and that the brides come from the Philippines as well as Ukraine. “It’s not illegal because it’s not really prostitution. It’s something else.”

She discussed what that “something else” might mean — both for women who leave their home countries for uncertain prospects abroad and for men who are involved either as brokers or prospective husbands.

For women, “sometimes they feel they don’t have a choice,” Vinik said. “They want to get out of the country. That’s the main reason, basically.” Among men, “sometimes they are broken men,” she said. “Something about their self-esteem is really, really broken.”

Michal Vinik, whose first feature film, Barash, debuted at some 60 festivals, and opened this week at Israeli theaters Courtesy YouTube screengrab)

The film centers on one stress-inducing day when Valeria arrives by plane in Israel. Her only contacts are her sister, brother-in-law, and eventually her fiance. There are other challenges in store. Valeria — “Lera” — does not understand Hebrew. It is expected that she will go to ulpan and, like her sister, formally convert to Judaism.

While the director tried to maintain a degree of sympathy for all of her characters, she found that at times this required effort.

Christina and Valeria are a study in contrasts, Vinik said — “one person looks at life in a more pragmatic way,” while “the younger sister has not given up her romantic dreams yet.”

The film shows what happens when Valeria, despite the odds being against her, decides to take control of her own destiny. It’s a theme that resonates not only for the director, but her audience.

“Any and every woman I speak to understands exactly what I’m trying to say,” Vinik said. “For many years, the financial differences between genders [have been] very dramatic. I know the whole idea of a financially independent woman is very new. My generation, for example — our mothers, our grandmothers didn’t divorce, didn’t have the money to stand alone.”

As for the two male protagonists, Michael and Eitan, “I actually love [Michael’s] character,” Vinik said. “I’m trying not to be judgmental. Although, of course, I don’t think anybody should buy women or men or organs, I think for this story, I had to love the men, also.”

It sounded a little harder for her to feel this way about Eitan. He gifts his bride-to-be with a Samsung phone and memorizes Russian proverbs to woo her, yet it’s overshadowed by larger events.

“He does nice things, I think, except for buying a woman,” Vinik said.

She noted that 90 percent of such real-life arranged marriages do not last.

“I know some arrangements that succeed,” Vinik said. “There are good couples, not only bad stories. It’s still not a very moral thing.”

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