'Children of the Sun' shines

This award-winning and engrossing documentary focuses on child-rearing on the kibbutzim.

kibbutz babies 224.88 (photo credit: )
kibbutz babies 224.88
(photo credit: )
Children of the Sun Four stars Written and directed by Ran Tal. Hebrew title: Yeldei ha Shemesh. 70 minutes. In Hebrew. This engrossing documentary, which won the Wolgin Award for Best Israeli documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer (in a highly competitive year) and was recently featured at the Toronto International Film Festival, focuses on child-rearing on the kibbutzim. Director Ran Tal breathes life into a subject that has been covered from many angles in the past by dispensing with the usual talking-heads documentary format and relying on a surprisingly extensive (and well photographed) collection of kibbutz home movies. This brilliant trick draws the viewers in, because it's virtually impossible to watch home movies without thinking of movies of your own childhood, or other home movies you've seen. The viewer is instantly charmed by these images of vulnerable and beautiful children and is caught up in the drama of their lives. And what a drama it is. These were the "children of the sun," those both burdened (and, sometimes, according to their own recollections) privileged with the task of embodying the Zionist ideal of creating a new kind of human. Tal, who was himself born on Kibbutz Beit Hashita to kibbutznik parents, tells this story with compassion for those who lived it, in a way that many documentary filmmakers do not manage. At a distance of 40 or 50 years, most of us now recoil from the idea of placing babies in a nursery and later a children's home. Yet it's more interesting to find out how this experiment in child-rearing worked and how it affected those who lived it than to attack those who conceived it and carried it out. Tal uses the footage to show, from various angles, exactly what it was like to grow up under these circumstances. As the story of their lives unfolds, it becomes clear that in many ways, the kibbutz movement is and was both a reflection of, and the vanguard of, secular Zionism. For better or for worse, the kibbutz movement is an inextricable, if not a central, component of Israeli identity. The debates, passion and despair on the screen mirror the changes that Israeli society has undergone during the period the film covers - and is still undergoing. At first, it is disconcerting that the director does not identify the speakers (and singers - he encourages his interviewees, among them his mother, to share some of the songs they grew up on) and doesn't say specifically which kibbutzim they are from. There are occasional references, of course, and some signs here and there. I suspect that some of the subjects preferred not to be interviewed on camera and by name, but by doing this, Tal also makes the point that all these children, in different locations around Israel, were given essentially the same upbringing. At the end, their faces are shown, with no identification and a list of their names rolls only with the end credits. One intriguing aspect Tal covers here is their memory of their isolation from the rest of the world. "I didn't know other children lived with their mothers and fathers," recalls one man. The nanny was the central figure in their lives from birth - not the mother and father they saw for about two hours a day. One man remembers his contact with his parents as "sterile . . .there was no shouting or arguments, but no hugging or kissing either." Again, it's easy to see the mistakes that were made, but it seems more to the point to examine it in terms of our current child-rearing practices, in which yuppie parents work long hours and leave children with the nannies of today, than to excoriate previous generations. One striking difference from most contemporary households is the fact that the kibbutz children slept at the children's house. This is one subject on which everyone is uniformly negative (it was also touched upon in the feature film, Sweet Mud, by Dror Shaul). Tal shows footage of these children getting into bed, accompanied by constant crying on the soundtrack as the interviewees remember that there was always at least one child sobbing at any given time during the night. As the participants describe how this collective upbringing shaped a group identity, some also recall the pride they felt at being kibbutz members. "You stopped being yourself, you completely identified with the kibbutz member inside yourself," says one man. Another recalls how he would lower his voice modestly if someone from the outside asked him where he was from, as if it were clear that being a kibbutznik made him superior. Parents of today seeing this will likely marvel at the seriousness and sense of purposefulness with which these children carried out their daily chores, as well as their independence as they wander the kibbutz unsupervised in the afternoons. The conformity that was imposed on them had both its price and its rewards. One man recalls his shame that his father was the kibbutz accountant and not a worker, saying he knew his father wanted him to be a both a Cossack and a Bedouin, two things the father clearly was not. Perhaps the most intriguing section of the film is the part in which Tal examines how these kibbutz-reared children felt when and what they did when they themselves became parents. Although some eventually left their kibbutzim, all of them recall putting their children in the nursery as soon as they returned from the hospital. Several of the parents admit, as one mother puts it, "It was very convenient. You left the baby there and you knew it was taken care of." Anyone who has experienced chaotic and exhausting homecomings with a new baby in the non-kibbutz world will be able to relate to this sentiment, even if it's not what they would wish for themselves. But most eventually regretted this practice, and the film shows, in a series of titles, that the rule was changed and children began sleeping at home, which is the practice today. Perhaps the most telling comment comes from the man who says, "I didn't know how to love my children. I didn't get love so there was something dead inside me." It's interesting to note that Tal's mother is one of those who chose to stay on her kibbutz, although she no longer feels the sense of belonging she once did. Tal's intimacy with her and his subject pay off in a film that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In the end, most viewers will agree with the woman who says, "Even unsuccessful experiments can have value." "Children of the Sun' screens in cinematheques around the country this month.