Golden Voices (2019), a romantic comedy from Israel, co-written (with Ziv Berkovich) and directed by Evgeny Ruman, is a charming film about elder romance and the disorienting shockwaves of immigration. Ruman, who arrived in Israel in 1990 as a 10-year-old, explained in a phone conversation that he wanted to acknowledge both the darker and comedic aspects of the immigrant experience of his parents’ generation, which had to find its place in a new and unfamiliar land.
Vladimir Friedman and Mariya Belkina, who star in the lead roles of Victor and Raya Frenkel, are also immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Unlike Ruman, they arrived in Israel as adults and personally experienced the turmoil that accompanies physical and cultural dislocation. Friedman, now in his early 60s, arrived in Israel in 1991 and began to perform in Hebrew soon after, establishing a formidable career in TV, films, and theater. He wrote, directed, and starred in a solo performance called I Was Born There, which he based on the story of his immigration. Traveling all over Israel to much acclaim, he has performed the one-man show over 1,800 times. Some may also remember him from the 1999 film Yana’s Friends, a successful rom-com about Russian immigrants amid Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks, in which Friedman played Yana’s despicable husband. Mariya Belkina arrived in Israel in 1990 as an accomplished actress and has since performed in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian in film and on the stage. She is a member of the acting ensemble of the renowned Hebrew-Russian Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv, has worked as a Russian translator of many Hebrew stage productions, and has worked as a voice actress dubbing films into Russian.
In addition to being a story of immigration, Golden Voices also tackles the rather obscure topic of film dubbing and its impact on the lives of professional voice actors. These are not celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Harvey Fierstein, who lend their star status as well as their voices to animated characters in Disney productions. Known only within the industry, dubbing actors are mostly tasked with making films in foreign languages accessible to the local moviegoing population. Dubbing, which is common practice in many European and Asian countries, is more labor intensive and costly than subtitling. It requires a careful textual translation of the film’s original dialogue, which is later recorded by voice actors and attached to the film’s soundtrack. The voice-over needs to be fully synchronized, fitting the lip movement of the original screen actors, and must also correspond to the various sound qualities of the original actors: timbre, volume, tempo, and style of speech.
The final responsibility of these dubbing actors, whose names are usually kept out of the credits, is not to draw attention to themselves. Walt Disney, who provided the voice of Mickey Mouse in the cartoon’s earliest years, insisted until the 1950s that the actors who voiced his characters remain anonymous. Disney has, of course, changed its policy since then, and often uses high-profile celebrities for its animated films. But even today, we know little of the faceless voice actors who dub feature films and create the illusion that their translated voices emanate from the original stars’ mouths. Audiences have no inkling of the dubbers’ identities, physical appearances, or personal lives. It is very rare to hear dubbing actors discuss their work.
It was therefore intriguing to read in the Israeli paper Yediot Achronot a recent interview with Lior Ashkenazi, a successful film and theater actor who spoke candidly about his dubbing work in the 1990s, when he provided Hebrew dubbing for Disney films—Pocahontas (1996), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999). Ashkenazi has no warm memories from his dubbing days. He considers dubbing to be totally different from acting. He explained that it was hard to get into the essence of the characters he dubbed, especially since he never saw the entire film: He did his work sitting in front of a small monitor that only displayed in black and white the specific segments he needed to dub. Dubbing one film after another, he said, made the job “robotic,” requiring many solitary hours in the recording studio, where he needed to devote himself to carefully studying the lip movement of the American characters. All in all, he considered it a boring job that offered neither great financial rewards nor recognition.
So what are we to make of these voice actors? Are they “real” actors, or stand-ins? How can years of dubbing affect a voice actor’s sense of self? Golden Voices explores these questions through the struggles of its protagonists. Victor (Vladimir Friedman) and Raya (Mariya Belkina) both had decadeslong careers as dubbing actors in the Russian film industry, a job that left a lasting impact on the two.
The film opens as an El Al plane, packed with anxious Russian immigrants and bulky suitcases, arrives in Israel and unloads its human cargo onto the airport tarmac. It’s a new land where people speak an old language the Russian arrivals will need to learn from scratch. And before they have a chance to do so properly—though no one knows it yet—Saddam’s Scud missiles will hit Israeli cities, driving the population into sealed rooms. Victor and Raya, a couple in their early 60s, are among the many arrivals. We soon learn that they came because “everyone” was leaving Russia, and because they both lost their jobs as dubbing actors when the company that employed them decided to hire younger talent.
Victor and Raya’s marriage is a tired one. It feels stale. No sparks or loving words pass between the childless couple. They find few delights in their new homeland: Raya enjoys the sun and the taste of fresh grapes, and Victor is thrilled with Egozi, a popular sweet Israeli snack he buys at the local kiosk. They are looking for employment, and it’s not easy. Can their relationship withstand the hardships of immigration and resettlement? Victor is grim, authoritarian, and trapped in his past glory as a successful dubber. An avid photographer, he keeps snapping pictures of Raya during various milestones in their journey, but when they’re in bed together and she gently touches him, he turns over and falls asleep. The soft-spoken Raya is 62 years old. She has a pleasant appearance, and her face reveals traces of her youthful attractiveness. But the camera exposes the ravages of time. She is full of wrinkles and her teeth are crooked. Raya dreams of a new beginning and longs for warmth and affection. We glimpse her yearning for a child she will never have as she watches a man frolicking with his child in a city park.
Victor and Raya no longer have an income or profession. Their only assets are their golden Russian voices, hardly a marketable commodity. Victor tries to get work as a dubber for films geared toward the local Russian clientele, but a seedy company’s shlocky efforts end in fiasco. He is offered an audition at a new Russian theater, but standing on stage he is unable to extricate himself from the Russian version of Marlon Brando’s famous monologue at the end of On the Waterfront. When the director asks him to perform something else, Victor asks: “Who?” When he’s told to just play himself, he freezes and is unable to deliver. He is locked into the speech patterns of the various actors whose screen performances he dubbed.
Raya, whose vocal dexterity enables her to play very young women, finds employment in a sex call center, where she caters to Russian men who seem to yearn more for romance and companionship than for faceless intercourse. She seems to enjoy her phone exchanges, feeling aroused and weaving romantic fantasies for her clients. A major domestic crisis follows when Victor finds out how she makes her living. He makes a scene, and she leaves the house, finding warm hospitality at the home of the woman who owns the call center (Evelin Hagoel).
Saddam’s missile attack, the film’s deus ex machina, comes to the rescue. As soon as the barrage begins, Victor, against all orders to shelter in place, frantically runs outside to find Raya. The city is completely empty. Only one madman is roaming the streets. Victor eventually finds Raya taking shelter in a movie theater, where everyone’s face is covered by grotesque-looking anti-chemical masks—everyone’s except Raya’s. They kiss fervently. Victor and Raya’s true love has been revived. They decide that he is done with dubbing, and she is giving up her sex call job. Over the previous decades, they had lost their authentic voices. They now decide to say goodbye to their past and reclaim their true selves and their love for each other. As with every romantic comedy, they will live happily ever after.
Golden Voices is a sensitive and heartwarming film about immigration, growing old, love, and new beginnings. But perhaps most interesting and original is the theme of voice dubbing, the preferred film translation system in many countries like Italy, Spain, India, and across the former Soviet Union. While scholars have discussed various aspects of the dubbing process, practically no attention has been paid to the inner life of the professional dubber. What does it mean to submerge oneself into the characters of foreign actors, trying to replicate their mode of speech, the timbre and intonation of their voices? Do you lose your own identity to a point where you can no longer speak like your real self? Victor freezes when he is asked to do so. Raya uses her vocal abilities to create a fantasy world that offers the intimacy and romance so sorely missing from her own marriage. Raya and Victor’s loss of their profession ultimately forces them to realize their original selves, liberating them from the shackles of impersonation.
Edna Nahshon, a professor of Theater and Drama at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the author of New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway (Columbia University Press, 2016) and Wrestling with Shylock: Jewish Responses to The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge University Press, 2017).