Israel: A Home Movie is a compilation of raw footage taken by amateur photographers over a span of decades. As the grainy images roll forward from the mid-30s through the late 70s, old voices share memories of themselves and their loved ones in days long gone.
Full disclosure: I have a hard time watching this kind of film. To me the film it most resembles is Terrence Davies’ 2008 film Of Time and the City, about the Liverpool Davies remembers from his childhood (the same Liverpool that eventually gave the world The Beatles). Of Time and the City won a lot of awards in ’08 and ’09 and it appeared on many of my colleagues’ “10 Best” lists. So if you saw Of Time and the City, and you loved it, then by all means go see Israel: A Home Movie right away. Otherwise, be warned: this is slow-going and you should probably down a double espresso before taking your seat inside the theatre.
But unlike Davies (who crafted a highly personal narrative), filmmakers Arik Bernstein and Eliav Lilti have made a deliberate decision to bury themselves inside what we see and hear, therefore there is no consistent point of view. They are determined not to tell us Israel’s story, choosing instead to show us how it “really” was. And so they have made a heroic effort to be “inclusive,” starting with young urbanites and rugged kibbutzniks in fuzzy black & white, with benevolent-looking Arabs on the margins. Inevitably, as time passes the presence of the military in daily life grows, and eventually most Palestinian neighbors vanish. The Yishuv becomes a nation state absorbed in its own rhythms (now captured in color); most of the enemies are now across the border and thus beyond the lens of hobbyists.
Those of us who already know a fair amount about Israeli history will instinctively provide our own anchors for the narrative. We will recognize the pioneers from Eastern Europe who came to build a homeland in the 20s, the refugees from Western Europe who fled from the Nazis in the 30s, the Holocaust survivors who kiss the ground when they disembark from rickety ships in the 40s, and the Mizrachi exiles who flood into ma’abarot in the 50s. But if you need me to tell you what the ma’abarot were (for example) then you are in trouble, because Bernstein and Lilti have no time to waste on didactic lessons.
For the record, the ma’abarot were transit camps built to accommodate the huge influx of Jews who arrived in Israel after the declaration of statehood in 1948. Just as there is no agreement about how many Palestinian Arabs left the Yishuv “of their own free will” versus how many Palestinian Arabs were forced out by the army of the new state of Israel, there is no agreement about how many Jews left “of their own free will” versus how many Jews were forced out by the governments of the existing nation states of Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, etc. These Jews—the Jews from countries that speak Arabic—are known in Israel as “Mizrachim” (Hebrew for “from the East”), and their descendants now make up over half of Israel’s current population.
Most non-Israelis—including most American Jews—don’t realize that the number of Mizrachi Jews who came to Israel after 1948 was almost equal to the number of Palestinian Arabs who left Israel after 1948 (in both cases, at least 700,000). Today, in 2013, there are thousands of Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel (not including the residents of the West Bank), but there are virtually no Jewish citizens living in any of the countries that speak Arabic.
Israel: A Home Movie has many minutes of raw footage of all of this coming and going accompanied by poignant first-person narration, as if no analytical explanation of push/pull factors on either side were required. Therefore, I expect most people who see Israel: A Home Movie will see “the Palestinian Arab side” (which echoes a narrative they already know), but will they also recognize the parallels that are so critical to an understanding of the complex world we all live in today?
Me, I would have preferred to meet some of the amazing people in this film face-to-face as they are today. I would love to listen to their stories while they show me their footage in a more linear context. But then I also prefer to eat a meal served in courses over an “All You Can Eat” buffet.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Go2Films.