Thursday, January 20, 2011

NYJFF ’11: Yolande an Unsung Heroine

She was an Israeli spy who probably would have fit more comfortably in the U.S. State Department than her own country’s diplomatic corps. She was a committed Zionist, but her real home was Cairo. Her name was Yolande Gabai de Botton (nee Harmor) and she is considered Israel’s greatest spy. Dan Wolman documents her glamorous but dangerous career in Yolande: an Unsung Heroine, which screens during the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum.

Educated in France, Harmor was a dazzling light on Cairo’s social circuit. She put her charm to good use, gleaning intel from highly placed Egyptian officials on behalf of the prospective State of Israel. Ostensibly working as a journalist, she built up a network of informers, even within the Muslim Brotherhood, which proved invaluable to Ben-Gurion (BG as her son knew him) leading up to Israel’s formal establishment. In fact, her final coup was so significant it essentially spelled the end of her espionage work. More ominously, it also attracted the attention of the Brotherhood.

Clearly, Cairo represented Harmor’s glory days, in all respects. Given her affinity for the Egypt and its culture, she was considered something of a dove during her frustrating stint in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Truthfully, a bit more context about the Arab-Israeli war and the terrorist attacks launched from the Egyptian controlled Gaza Strip would have helped the film at this point. However, Wolman and Harmor’s surviving friends make a persuasive case that Israel’s intelligence and foreign policy establishment never properly recognized her contributions.

Yolande is one of several relatively brief (at just under an hour) but highly informative documentaries screening during this year’s NYJFF. Frankly her life would make a great narrative film. She might have been blond, but it seems like the sort of project that would appeal to Angelina Jolie’s sensibilities. Regardless, Wolman tells her story cogently, scoring on-camera interviews with a number of her more prominent colleagues. (The bland soundtrack could stand a bit of an upgrade though). A short but fascinating doc, Yolande screens twice this coming Tuesday (1/25) as the New York Jewish Film Festival continues at the Walter Reade Theater.