One of the scenes in a remarkable new film “Israel: A Home Movie,” depicts a group of brawny men on their annual camping trip to Sinai at the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The film, which is composed of archived home videos, captures Israeli history from the late 1920s through the early 1980s. Via the private moments that unfolded alongside the momentous ones, the film tells ordinary but striking stories of weddings, love, war, despair and loneliness.
The friends on the Sinai camping trip, for example, gather for their without-the-wives-and-children festival of nonstop eating, drinking, snorkeling and merriment at the Red Sea. Something in their video exudes the optimism and sense of possibility that embodied the young Israeli state.
Then they notice a plane (a Soviet-made MiG that the Egyptians use, they note) flying into Israel from Egypt. “Strange,” they say. “Well… it will fly back out again.” After all, it was the morning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, a day reserved for fasting and prayer, not flying.
They climb a nearby hill, camera in hand, to see what is going on. Within seconds, another plane flies toward the incoming Egyptian plane, and shoots it down. A billowing cloud of smoke erupts, and the Egyptian plane falls into the Red Sea before their eyes. Shocked but not without their wits, they get into their cars to hear what’s going on. They hear codes from the army, used to call in reserve-duty soldiers.
Amidst the frenzy, a few pretty Swedish girls approach them. One of the young men is perched on his jeep, flirting with one of the girls, and the narrator explains: “We even thought about staying to hang out with the girls, “to have a little fun.”
But they decide against it. They opt to head back home. They realize there may be war.
The people behind the events
Arik Bernstein, the film’s Tel Aviv-based producer and founder of Alma Films, describes the compilation as a historiography of Israeli history. It conveys the mood and spirit of the events that shaped the country — “how each person saw them, what it felt like,” he explains — using only old-fashioned 8 mm camera footage.
The audience can hear Yitzhak Langer describe his experience of sailing to pre-state Palestine on the Polonia and the unbridled emotion in the mixed ultra-Orthodox and secular crowd. Or, as Samuel Yehudai recounts by contrast, the embarrassment he felt upon arriving at the Haifa port: “People told me ‘save the money for your trip back’ as I disembarked from the boat… I felt like a donkey.”
We also see Yaffa Lustig’s wedding video. Her wedding took place on Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv during the war of 1948. She had met her husband when she was 13, and on the day of her wedding, the revelry was unmatched — despite the shooting from Jaffa as fighting between Israelis and Arabs raged on.
“Everyone asked me: How does your [strapless] dress stay up? Thanks to a handy seamstress, I boasted a wonderful gown,” recounts Lustig. “We ate gefilte fish, [cow] tongue, and beef… And, for our honeymoon? We went to Ramat Gan. We couldn’t go very far.”
The film shows Jews dancing in the streets after the State of Israel is declared and Arab villagers fleeing, often with one suitcase or a bag in their hands. It also colorfully captures the loneliness and despair felt by some of the immigrants in a new land. “Only when we got to Israel did things get bad,” says Ezra Shemie, an Iraqi Jew. “In Baghdad, things were good.”
Indeed, the Ma’abarot (transit camps for new immigrants) held the extremes of human suffering and hope. There, Holocaust survivors, mixed with Jews from Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere, attempted to carve out a common history.
Israeli poet Roni Sumak recounts a story from his childhood in one of the camps: “Here I was, this Jewish boy from Baghdad, explaining to all the kids of Holocaust survivors what Buchenwald was.” A woman in the transit camp had died, and one of the neighbors told Sumak that “Buchenwald killed her.” When he asked his parents what Buchenwald was, they explained: It’s the mother who stays at her child’s school all day, waiting for the child to finish, or the father who stuffs extra bread in his pocket. That’s Buchenwald.”
Maybe it could have been different
According to Bernstein, people who view the film tend to describe it as sad and depressing — which doesn’t surprise him. It’s a fantastic story, he says, but “the overall view is war after war after war, and nothing really changes… people don’t really learn anything.”
The film, for example, depicts exuberant Jews on a three-day march through Arab villages after the 1967 Six Day War. The camera catches the joy. It also catches Arab men sitting, watching the parade of Israelis. Their expressions are not so much unfriendly as stoic, with the face of one man in particular hinting at the devastation he feels. “I feel that they [the celebrating Israelis] are putting a knife into my heart,” says another of the Arab villagers.
We also see an eight-couple Jewish wedding at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in newly captured Hebron. In the footage, local Arab villagers join in the festivities and throw rice at the brides and grooms. Thousands came to the wedding. “People were friendly,” recounts one of the brides.
Just as the film captures the elation that followed the Six Day War — one of the narrators speaks of the sense that Israel had rightfully claimed land that “had always been ours” — it also conveys the quick turn to desperation and hopelessness in 1973.
Yoram Kuperinsk, an Israeli painter, puts it this way: “We didn’t know what we were fighting for.” He recalls the salvation that morphine brought to wounded soldiers, and constantly masturbating in an effort to calm himself. In between trenches and death, he explains, soldiers grasped for meaning.
The film, which ends with the historic Menachem Begin-Anwar Sadat meeting, that led to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, suggests that perhaps it’s the “omnipotence of [official] television” that made the people behind the private and small cameras feel insignificant, for they were no longer a necessity in capturing the larger-than-life, staged events.
Except, in this film, it is ordinary people who capture and illuminate the rich in-between moments that make up Israel’s history. This is the unstaged truth.
“Israel: A Home Movie” will be screened at cinematheques in Haifa, Herzliya, Holon, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv later this month. It will also compete in international film festivals in the fall.