In the annals of Jewish history, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was a world-altering moment, changing the trajectory of the Jewish people. Now, it’s a movie.
“Legend of Destruction” is filmmaker Gidi Dar’s latest creation. Made entirely of still drawings, the movie was written by Dar and actor Shuli Rand, and drawn by Michael Faust and David Polonsky of “Waltz with Bashir” fame. Actors Moni Moshonov, Yael Abecassis, Igal Naor and Amos Tamam also provide voices in the film.
The 90-minute film tells the story of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 CE, from the perspective of Ben Batiach, a good-hearted scholar who turns zealot, leading to the Roman siege on the city and the destruction of the Second Temple.
For a movie made from still art, it is a gripping watch, one that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Dar’s film unfolds from the days prior to the Israelites’ first, nascent protests against the Jewish elite who were playing a political game, balancing their protection of the Temple with their knowledge and fear of the Roman power.
Using drawings that lend a feel of vivid photography, Dar brings the tension and emotions of the crisis to life, demonstrating how critical the period was for the very nature of the Jewish nation.
That was his plan all along.
“I’m a crazily optimistic person, and sometimes my delusions come true,” he said. “All my projects are like that.”
Dar had been thinking about this period of Jewish history, which he had once learned about in school, but which he could not remember in detail. He picked up the historical tome written by Josephus Flavius and was shocked by the sheer insanity of those times.
“They went so far, their baseless hatred was hard to imagine,” he said. “And no one talks about it.”
There was never any question of doing a live-action film, given the tremendous budget required for that kind of project and Dar’s belief that “no one can really do it right.” He felt the same about classic animation, which he thought would lose something in the translation of the story.
“Limitations can be good because they force you to go somewhere,” said Dar.
Instead, he thought about making the film out of stills, given the knowledge that all movement is illusion, as viewers’ minds complete the gaps necessary to understand the story being told.
“You have to take the leap and that’s more normal in regular films and more psychological in mine, but it’s the same thing,” he said. “I believe this movie is more convincing than classical animation because you have to fill that gap.”
There are many moments in the movie that bring the ancient city of Jerusalem to life: glimpses of Second Temple traditions, with its marble floors and gold fittings, where sheep are brought for sacrifice against the background of the Levites’ choir; the thousands of Israelites who would gather to pray at the holy Temple; the simplicities of daily ancient life, with dark homes carved out of the Jerusalem hillside, the people eating flat loaves of bread and wearing strappy sandals.
It took a good amount of trial and error to find the right balance in the drawings and filming, said Dar, who worked on the film for eight years.
“We made one minute to see how it worked, and then five minutes, and then 30,” he said.
It was the same sense of the unknown when he made the award-winning “Ushpizin,” said Dar. As a secular filmmaker making what is widely considered to be the first Israeli film successfully showing religious life on the big screen (and starring Rand), he did not know if it would succeed.
“‘Ushpizin’ was the first; nobody was supposed to go to theaters to see things like that, now it’s obvious,” he said. “Most of my films are like that, all about a leap of faith and I’m very into faith.”
It’s a funny comment for an avowedly secular Israeli. For Dar, some of it is the faith he has an Israeli.
He pointed to the filmmakers he first studied as a budding director in his twenties in New York City, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and their ability to address the culture of Christianity in their films.
“What do I do, Zionism?” he said. “It’s one of the biggest events in the history of politics in the world, bigger than the Bible, but it’s only one hundred years old.”
Yet it was Zionism that brought his own grandparents to Israel as pioneers, radically secular Jews who had a dream and a vision and faith in that vision. Now, 100 years later, said Dar, Israel is “an empire. Their dream was fulfilled but it lacks spirit. That’s a dangerous thing in a place like Israel and we have no choice but to address our past and the secular Israelis have no access to the past, except through the Bible that is written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and you have to know a lot in order to just read it.”
He wants all Israelis, not just religious Israelis, to have access to the ancient Hebrew text, in order to be more familiar with their own history and be able to go forward.
“We have to offer access to it,” he said. “My movie is an attempt to address this, to deal with this subject my way and not in a religious way. I don’t expect people to become religious, but to find their path in the jungle.”
Dar also has faith in filmmaking, which demands the viewer believe what is presented on the screen, coordinating all of one’s senses toward the experience.
“It’s like a temple,” said Dar.
In the film, Dar followed the trajectory of historian Flavius, the Jew who became a traitor and wrote the account for the Romans, while also adding his own interpretations and commentary. The Jewish sages, said Dar, did not care about the facts either, but purposely twisted them to push their own messages.
“But I understood Josephus,” said Dar. “When he said the Zealots are crazy, I said maybe you have to explain why they betrayed their own people.”
For Dar, the ancient history becomes an allegory about the current state of affairs in modern Israel. Over the last eight years, he said, political and societal life in Israel has soured. And he compares this to ancient Israel, and to the sages, who blamed the destruction of the Temple on the lack of equality among the Israelites.
“I’m trying to warn my nation to be careful,” said Dar. “It’s in your genes to screw things up. So wake up and be good to each other, look deeply inside ourselves.”
“Legend of Destruction” is playing in Israeli theaters now.
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