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TAMIR ELTERMAN and David Alexander. 'It's interesting that the Zionist idea got preserved more outside of Israel than within.'
Between 4,000 and 6,000 non-native Israelis are serving in the Israeli Army at any given time. They are known as "lone soldiers" and are often here without a support system of family and friends. It would be nearly impossible to hear all of their stories or understand all of their motivations, hopes and fears. But filmmakers Tamir Elterman and David Alexander are attempting to create a window into the lives of these soldiers by focusing on the experiences of three young men in their documentary Lone Soldiers.
The concept for the film took root in 2006 when the two filmmakers, then students at the University of Oregon, serendipitously met Steve Rubin over drinks at a nearby bar. Rubin, originally from Philadelphia, PA, had signed up for the Israeli Army "to protect Israel and to protect Judaism," during the Second Lebanon War. "He asked us what we were doing after graduation, and we said we wanted to make a documentary," recalls Alexander. "He told us about how he was joining the IDF, and we thought, 'hey, if this is a worldwide phenomenon, it's a pretty good idea for a movie.'"
Elterman and Alexander had collaborated on several small video projects before Lone Soldiers and set up their own non-profit production company, Three Cities Productions. "It was a way to spend free time creatively and productively," says Elterman. "We realized we could pursue it as a business venture, and with a camera this big and a microphone, we could make a broadcast-quality story."
After a year of pre-production "searching through Myspace pages and Nefesh B'Nefesh" for possible subjects, the pair came to Israel in December 2006 to meet with liaisons from the IDF and to do face-to-face interviews with potential subjects. Fifteen interviews later, they settled on their three main men: Yoni, from Philadelphia, who signed up in honor of his friend Michael Levine who had died as a paratrooper in 2006; Lee, a South African working as an engineer in Handasa Kravit; and Yaniv from Brazil, serving in the Israeli Air Force's Kfir unit in the West Bank. "They're not innately militaristic, they're not GI Joe," Alexander is careful to note. "We selected people who are here to fight for an ideal."
In addition to trailing these three during their time as lone soldiers, "we're trying to get a perspective from people on the streets - what do they think of these guys? Are they crazy? Heroic? Rare?" says Elterman.
The responses have been wide-ranging. "We've heard everything from 'I would never to do that' to 'these guys are heroes' to Palestinians who say that they are brainwashed and fighting for a lost cause," says Alexander.
The 120 hours of footage they have thus far, combined with the interviews they've taken of those in the army and on the streets, have changed Alexander and Elterman's views of Israel in ways they had not expected. "It's interesting that the Zionist idea got preserved more outside of Israel than within," muses Elterman. "[These lone soldiers] feel like they can appreciate Israel more than an Israeli because they see its threats from an outsider's perspective." As for Israel being the dangerous war zone that friends had cautioned them against entering, the two have found that to be the farthest thing from the truth.
"It's been way more boring than we expected," admits Alexander. "I've seen live gunfire only one time in five months. I was expecting serious bang-bang."
Part of this calmness comes as a result of the fact that all three of their subjects are in training, spending equal amounts of time doing push-ups and learning Hebrew. "Plus, the army isn't going to put us in danger's way," says Alexander. "I would want to be, to get better footage, but they take care of us."
Consequently, Elterman and Alexander have stayed in Israel much longer than they had originally planned in order to get the most substantial footage possible. They also had to do some creative maneuvering, reaching out to a production company in Brazil, for instance, to get footage of Yaniv leaving his two-year-old. "It's been emotionally cool, but they haven't been tested yet," says Elterman. "We're waiting for them to have to put their ideals to the test, and ask themselves why they are willing to put their lives on the line."
In the meantime, the duo continues to film, attempting to capture the group dynamic without influencing the natural atmosphere. With the aid of wireless microphones, their subjects have been able to feel more comfortable, but "everyone is always curious, asking what we're doing," says Alexander. "The army also operates differently when cameras are rolling. We hear they are much nicer in Hebrew classes when we're there."
Adding to their workload is the balancing act of production and filmmaking. "We're creating a window into Israel, to help others learn about Israeli society," Elterman and Alexander agree. "It's educational entertainment."
From an editing bay in their Tel Aviv apartment, they cut down hundreds of hours of footage while simultaneously fundraising, directing, and interning for each other. "From a business perspective," says Elterman, "this is graduate school."
With the aim of eventually entering Lone Soldiers in international film festivals, distributing it worldwide, and producing a version in Hebrew, Elterman and Alexander are determined to finish, no matter the cost. They have even turned down offers to have the project taken over financially because they want to maintain control over content and editing.
"It's a gamble," says Elterman, "but this is just the beginning."
More information about Lone Soldiers and Three Cities Production can be found at www.three-cities.org.
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