The symbols of mourning for the fallen on Israel’s Memorial Day are vivid and visceral: the wail of the siren that opens the evening and morning ceremonies; scenes of families swarming the graves of their loved ones; the stories, films and accounts of soldiers who fell in battle, in a variety of media.
For six years, Beit Avi Chai, the Jerusalem cultural center, has been producing “A Face. The Day. A Memorial,” in what may seem like an unlikely medium, more often associated with children’s content — a compilation of animated short films made about soldiers who fell in battle, created by young, local animators.
“We wanted to change something in the language of remembering in Israel,” said Yotvat Fireaizen Weil, who launched and runs the project. “The focus has always been on the way someone was killed, their heroism in battle, and how hard it is to remember who they were before they were killed.”
One of the ways in which fallen soldiers are remembered is with documentary-style films, usually made by their families and shown in a steady reel on television throughout the 24 hours of Israel’s Memorial Day.
Fireaizen Weil said she felt strongly that anyone who had lost someone faced a nearly impossible task of retaining the memories of how they looked and sounded and felt.
“Our sense of that person, what they felt like to us, is lost after they’re dead,” she said. “We’re looking for new languages.”
When Fireaizen Weil first arrived at animation, people were put off.
“They said, ‘But animation is Disney and all rosy, and this is about death and darkness. How could it be connected?’” she recalled.
She decided to progress with caution.
The idea of the animated shorts, just a few minutes in length, is to look carefully at the small details and personal moments that made up the person being remembered: the family dinner, a shared birthday of two brothers who were killed, or the intimate family stories and idiosyncrasies that were only known to a small circle of friends and family.
This year’s selection of films includes “Dad’s Kite,” about Amir Zohar, killed while on reserve duty in 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada. It’s told from the viewpoint of Zohar’s children and dog, a mutt adopted by the family during one of their many outings. The mostly black-and-white line drawings, with touches of color, are slightly smudged and out of focus, a delicate way of connecting to beloved memories.
“We connected to this story and the kids’ viewpoint and the dog who was part of the story,” said Daniella Schnitzer, who made the film with her work partner, Omer Sharon. “We felt connected to the father and the trips and the Israeli music, and to them as a whole.”
Both Schnitzer and Sharon studied animation at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, and were well-aware of the Beit Avi Chai project, which offers a tremendous opportunity for young animators.
Orly Zohar, Amir’s wife, had written a book about her husband, and Schnitzer and Sharon received a script based on it. They also met with the Zohar’s children, and were able to learn more details that made the film more personal.
“You get inspired by all the other films, and what you love more or less about each one,” said Schnitzer. “I looked at them again and again,” she added.
The animation project is now well known throughout Israel, with the films shown to high school students and youth groups as a method of explaining war and death, said Fireaizen Weil.
“There are some 25,000 dead soldiers and that’s a big number,” she said. “It means there’s an endless number of stories to be told, but it can be so hard for families to go back to the happy memories because it makes you feel the loss so keenly.”
The hardest moment, she said, is showing the finished work to the family.
“Maybe they won’t think it’s good,” she said. “We are showing them their own memories. But what’s amazing is that almost all the time it works, and it gives them a taste of what they once experienced. For some people, it’s like they got their loved ones back again.”
Yair Harel, another Bezalel-trained animator, this year created “Still Waters,” a film about Keren Tendler, a pilot who was killed during her reserve duty service in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. What he appreciated about using his art in this storytelling medium is that it allowed more options than regular film, giving Tendler’s story more power.
“You can do things that are a little more imaginative and that offer a lot in a story, especially when it’s about someone who is no longer with us,” he said.
Harel had ties to Tendler; he didn’t know her personally, but he had also served as a soldier in 2006, and grew up in Rehovot, as did she.
She was slightly older than Harel, and he realized that a kindergarten on his parents’ street was built in her name, after she was killed.
“It’s an unusual story, about a female soldier,” said Harel, who met with Tendler’s family and girlfriend, in order to gather more material and details about her. “It brings up the ongoing argument about female soldiers in war, and I wanted to contribute to that.”
For Fireaizen Weil, the project is an opportunity to help the mourning families, and offers a way to consider the traditions and languages of mourning. She thinks about her own young children, and her hope that Israel’s reality will change by the time they are old enough to serve in the army. In the meantime, she continues her work, a project that she and her staff feel privileged to carry out.
“Sometimes a film feels like someone else’s story and with animation, it can be feel like everyone’s film,” she said. “This is an art project too, giving young animators a chance, and giving everyone a chance to remember the people who are no longer with us.”
Beit Avi Chai premieres each years’ films on the eve of Memorial Day. The films are also available on the Beit Avi Chai website and on YouTube.