Monday, July 08, 2013

The Collage of History—Israel: a Home Movie

Technology has been a blessing to historians, resulting in an explosion of primary sources.  This is particularly so in a country as small as Israel, where great historical events often intrude on personal day-to-day life.  Assembling a collage of amateur video, director Eliav Lilti and project creator-producer Arik Bernstein create a fragmentary portrait of the Middle East’s only democracy in Israel: a Home Movie (clip here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Bernstein’s team is blessed with a wealth of source material, dating back to the 1930’s well before the formal establishment of the State of Israel.  There are weddings, celebrations, and people just fooling around with their cameras.  Yet, the resulting footage serves as a time capsule of each era. In some cases, the informal videographers documented undeniable history as it happened.  Easily the most dramatic example is the footage shot by beach partiers of Egyptian MiGs shot of the sky by pursuing Israeli fighter pilots after executing the sneak attack that launched the Yom Kippur War.

A film like Home Movies arguably says more about the editorial hand shaping it than those who originally shot the constituent videos.  In this case, Bernstein and Lilti’s team clearly reflects the inclination of liberal humanism (broadly defined) to hold one’s self or one’s country to a higher standard than those who inveigh against us.  It is a noble, forgiving instinct, but it is often misplaced.  Time and again, the disembodied narrators bemoan Israel’s inability to make peace with the Arab populations, asking what they could have done differently.

In contrast, little attention is paid to the terrorism Israel has faced since her inception—just the occasional ghostly picture of a relative cut down before she reached thirty.  Still, the rockstar treatment afforded to journalist Dan Shilon at a swinging 1970’s wedding after his uncompromising reporting on the murder of the Israeli Olympians is certainly a telling moment.  Yet, the resilient hope peace might finally follow each successive war is a refrain heard from Israelis throughout Home Movies, speaking volumes about the inherent difference in values held by Israel and its haters.

Indeed, Home Movies is a deliberate and knowing exercise in subjectivity, in which truth seeps in through the conspicuous margins.  It should therefore neither be the first nor the last word on the Israeli experience.  (Viewers looking for a quick primer should check out the lucid and comprehensive The Case for Israel featuring Prof. Alan Dershowitz.)

There are many striking (though grainy) images and several intriguing anecdotes in Home Movies.  Where else will you see such candid footage of Moshe Dayan (courtesy of his son)?  Nonetheless, it is important to understand it is a product of an Israeli film establishment not so very different from our own.  Recommended for history buffs, but with reservations, Israel: a Home Movie opens this Wednesday (7/10) at New York’s Film Forum.