Film review

A masterfully woven cinematic tapestry of family footage

‘Israel: A Home Movie’ is not your typical sugar-coated documentary, but a miraculous piece of art depicting the peoples’ truth

Still from 'Israel: A Home Movie' (photo credit: Alma Films)
Still from ‘Israel: A Home Movie’ (photo credit: Alma Films)

For better or worse, the world is obsessed with Israel. Good luck securing a one week run at New York’s prestigious Film Forum for “Moldova: A Home Movie.” (No disrespect to any Moldovans who may be reading.) But “Israel: A Home Movie” is more than a simple filmed wikipedia entry. It is a graceful and artfully conceived collage — a surprisingly emotional and rousing feature film, something of a phenomenal achievement when you consider how boring it is to look at a stranger’s old Super 8 reels under normal circumstances.

The story of the Jewish state has been told in documentary form before — as rallying propaganda, incendiary slander and everything in between. Arik Bernstein and Eliav Lilti have achieved something truly unique with “Israel: A Home Movie.” They have weaved a cinematic tapestry made up exclusively from footage shot by families. As such, the story of the world’s most unlikely powerful nation springs from the ground-up, the recognizable headlines and historical dates acting as a framework — even background noise — for every day life.

Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through to the late 1970s the bullet points of Israeli history are represented, but attached to a very specific and at times mundane recollections from the original amateur shooters or their descendants.

It’s one thing to see stock footage of a man in uniform cranking the propeller of a plane and another to hear a family reminisce about the brother lost during the Independence War, and to then see the few frames repeated again, as they are his only surviving images.

Still from 'Israel: A Home Movie' (photo credit: Courtesy of Alma Films)
Still from ‘Israel: A Home Movie’ (photo credit: Courtesy of Alma Films)

While the movie does name everyone who is making commentary, it quickly turns to waves from the past, voices and images coursing over you, ultimately become one story — the story of the entire Israeli population, though of diverse origin, showing and telling how they created the nation.

Amid the military parades and weddings and packed crates of Jaffa oranges there is a deeper truth here than what can be found in a typical History Channel special. Figures like David Ben-Gurion are respected, but presented alongside others in perhaps a less beatified but more real world manner. (In other words, a visit from Israel’s first prime minister isn’t quite as thrilling as the Egyptian singer Oum Khoulthoum.)

As the narrative progresses a little of the Vaseline comes off the lens. The songs from perfect children on the kibbutz fade to the Eichmann trial and a new generation trying to make sense of the Holocaust. The Six Day War — considered at the time as the final war — is presented both as triumph and fraught with foreboding.

Among the more striking sequences is footage of the breakout of the Yom Kippur War caught completely by accident. A group of men making an annual party trip to the beach is stopped short by a firefight in the sky and a downed plane. The phrase “a nation caught off-guard” was never made so explicit.

Producer Arik Bernstein. (photo credit: Alma Films)
Producer Arik Bernstein. (photo credit: Alma Films)

The film ends with Sadat and the Camp David Accords but not because Israel’s story concludes. By this point the ubiquity of top-down, officially produced images simply becomes overwhelming. As one observer eloquently puts it, the television image is a “staged truth.”

What Bernstein and Lilti have accomplished is something of a minor miracle. It is a peoples’ truth. Post-Independence rationing and economic struggle aren’t sugar-coated. Footage from 1973’s veterans, compelled to record to perhaps maintain their sanity, don’t pull their punches. (Among the few boldfaced names whose personal archives are woven into the film is Uday Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan, who acts, perhaps counterintuitively, as something of a comic relief.)

I worry that some critics may not want to roll their sleeves up with a film as rife with potential controversy — as anything involving Israel seems to necessitate that one must take a side. From a purely aesthetic point of view, “Israel: A Home Movie” is a cinematic essay in the spirit of legendary work like “Sans Soliel” by the recently departed art-house maverick Chris Marker.

I take back part of my snark from earlier. If Bernstein and Lilti has been from Moldova and whipped up the mundane scraps of its citizens’ shared history into a dreamlike shared memory, I have no doubt that it, too, would be fascinating. But you’ll forgive me if I think that that the struggles of the Jewish people offer a little extra production value.

A one-week run of ‘Israel: A Home Movie’ starts July 10 in New York.

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