It is hard to think of a more emotive subject for a documentary than Nir Malchi, the 50 year old sabra whose life unfolds before the camera in As a Great River Flows. Screened Sunday at the Haifa Film Festival, the film follows Malchi through several personal and spiritual journeys.
Malchi's early years are the stuff of the archetypal sabra. He grew up on a kibbutz and joined an elite naval commando unit. Matters became more involved when, after his army service, he went to Japan where he spent ten years exploring and mastering the mysteries of tai chi, a Chinese martial art. While in the Far East Malchi began to rediscover his Jewish roots and embarked on a second spiritual voyage, eventually leading him to return to the faith (hozer b'tshevua).
But, it is not just Malchi's spiritual endeavors that make As A Great River Flows such an absorbing film. As the story progresses, one is gradually drawn into a volatile vortex of criss-crossing emotional energies. First, there is the tangled web of Nir's relationships. He is at loggerheads with his parents over what it means to be Israeli and Jewish. Then his wife complains about being the last to know about Nir's physical condition and, if that weren't sufficient to spark the imagination of any budding soap opera screenwriter, a long lost love child resurfaces after 20 years.
The "physical condition" Malchi's wife learns of at a relatively advanced stage is cancer. Several years ago Malchi was diagnosed with the disease in three different forms. At the time, the doctors gave Malchi several months to live. However, after trips to Germany and the States for treatment, and an iron will to fight the illness, Malchi remains alive and active two years later.
"It is a fascinating story," says producer Yahaly Gat, "and, as with most documentaries, you never really know what you're going to catch with the camera." On the other hand, Gat says he did expect to get some interesting insights on Malchi's various and variegated familial liaisons. "At some level or other, all documentaries look at relationships but we knew they were several circles around Nir that warranted examination."
In fact, Malchi aroused a fair amount of media interest long before his health deteriorated and he made a religious turnaround. His physical and spiritual foray to the Far East was covered quite extensively by the press. He attained mastery in tai chi rarely achieved by Westerners and was slated to play a central role in his teacher's plans to establish tai chi facilities around the globe.
However, Malchi's Jewish religious enlightenment brought him back home to Israel. He set up his own tai chi center in south Tel Aviv and quickly became something of a local guru. His sessions were, and are still, attended by large numbers of highly enthused men and women, secular and observant alike.
Of course, in this country it is hard to address any sensitive subject without treading on some potential political landmine or other. In the case of As A Great River Flows, which was funded both by the Second Broadcasting Authority and Gesher (an educational organization dedicated to bridging gaps between religious and secular Jews), it is the contentious issue of the polluted Kishon River which, for many years, was used by the IDF for diving exercises. In the past four or five years there have been numerous cases of former divers being diagnosed with some form or other of cancer.
However, Gat says the issue of whether Malchi's naval experiences are responsible for his physical conditions is not central to the film. "We touch on that but As A Great River Flows is about far more than that. In many ways it is something of a microcosmic reflection of Israeli society today, with all its many complex elements."