Seekers of Happiness
Towards the end of Seekers of Happiness, which is set in Birobidzhan—a territory designated for Jewish colonization in the Soviet Far East—Natan, a collective farm chairman, detects a footprint of a shoe he proclaims to be "foreign." On the trail to capture a man accused of beating another Jewish settler, Natan inadvertently hints at the metacontext of the film. Namely, the film aims to showcase a family of Jewish migrants, who had left the shtetl for Palestine but then moved to the Soviet Union. The film's main goal is to sniff out a "foreign" element resistant to the ideology that settling Jews on the land would help cure the degenerate economic condition typical of the newly defunct Pale of Settlement.
This film about Birobidzhan, though once dismissed as mere propaganda, can, in fact, teach us a lot. How to detect the codes of an ideological work of art, for example, is itself an important interpretative skill. Like many Socialist Realist works, Seekers of Happiness skillfully performs its ideology through a rather conventional plot: Natan is in love with Basya, who is married to Pinya Kopman, the film's "foreign" villain who is resistant to Soviet innovation. Natan is frequently depicted in proximity to a portrait of Stalin—and so, ridding Basya of Pinya allows for Stalin to enter the familial structure by proxy.
But the film is, at the same time, a terrific exhibit of how an intended ideological message shows its cracks when odd details of the work are examined. For example, on the train to Birobidzhan, Pinya and his family meet and are greeted by a strange man playing "Israel's Lament on the Banks of the Amur River." The name of the song evokes the words of Psalm 137, thus presenting the river demarcating one of the borders of the Birobidzhan region as a replacement for "the rivers of Babylon." Birobidzhan here is the newest exilic topos in a long chain of Jewish displacement—rather than the "Red Zion" it was supposed to be.
Readings such as this one ask us to reconcile the film's intended ideology with details that chip away at the same message from the inside in order to produce a complex cultural artifact of the Soviet Jewish experience.