“Story is the most potent weapon in the world,” said Avi Nesher, talking about his latest movie, Image of Victory, which will be released in theaters across Israel on December 23. “We are all basing our existence on a story.”
The story in his new film takes place during the War of Independence, depicting the battle of Nitzanim: the struggles of the young people who stayed at Kibbutz Nitzanim, as well the experiences of an Egyptian journalist embedded with Egyptian forces. It is epic, tragic, at times even comic, and always moving, focusing on the humanity of those caught in the crosshairs on both sides, an audacious choice given that this war holds a special place in Israeli mythology. And it is perhaps the greatest story Nesher has told in a career spanning more than 40 years, drawing favorable comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. The Haifa International Film Festival, which held a premiere screening of Image, also showed Paths of Glory and featured a panel discussion where Nesher talked about the threads connecting the two films.
Nesher burst onto the Israeli movie scene in 1978 at the age of 24 with The Troupe (Ha Lahaka), a film about an army entertainment troupe that has become an Israeli classic. A few years later, Hollywood beckoned and he took off, making genre movies – such as the crime thriller Taxman – for about 15 years before returning to Israel in the early 2000s.
Since moving back, Nesher made several movies that played a key role in revitalizing the Israeli film industry: Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), The Secrets (2007), The Matchmaker (2010), The Wonders (2013), Past Life (2016) and The Other Story (2018). These movies are brilliant and quirky, looking at aspects of Israeli life – the relations between Moroccan and Indian immigrants in a Negev town in Turn Left, for instance – that others ignored. Image of Victory has elements of all of the themes he covered previously, along with a sweeping focus, a historic background, and passion that make it a uniquely compelling cinematic experience.
Nesher, who believes in doing extensive research, looked deeply into the stories of the battle. He drew some of the inspiration for the film from his producer, Ehud Bleiberg, whose father lived on the kibbutz at that time. He also looked at the life of Mira Ben Ari, a young mother on the kibbutz who operated radio communications and chose to stay and fight even after her husband and son left, along with many of the residents, as the Egyptians closed in. Ben Ari is played in the movie by Joy Rieger, with whom Nesher worked on his two previous films, Past Life and The Other Story.
“Joy was born to play this part, she gives a great performance as this very amazing woman,” he said. Nesher used Ben Ari’s diaries to add detail to the story, and her son was a producer on the film. “If you don’t do research, if you don’t rely on the facts, you run the risk of just imitating other movies you remember,” he said.
The kibbutz is filled with a fascinating collection of characters from all over the world, including two Argentinean cousins played by Meshi Kleinstein and Eliana Tidhar, and a German pianist who survived the Holocaust portrayed by Adam Gabay, all of whom have their own complex stories.
But it isn’t simply the story of Israeli heroism but also of the Egyptians, with Amir Khoury (whom Nesher praises as “a joy to work with” and someone who expects to become an international movie star) portraying real-life Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, an aspiring photojournalist on the frontlines who was pressured by his government to create the “image of victory” of the title and not to report on the true losses and costs of the war. Ala Dakka portrays an Egyptian firebrand who truly believes in the cause for which he is fighting.
“It’s a story of two conflicting narratives,” Nesher said, explaining why he chose to tell the story from the Egyptian as well as the Israeli point of view. “The only way for me to make this movie was to empathize with both sides... I’m always aware of the other story.”
He is careful to put his film in the context of history. “When we talk about the War of Independence, we are talking not about history but mythology, and you can’t find justice in mythology.”
Nesher, who served in the IDF Special Forces (Sayeret Matkal) and whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, said he considers himself “an Israeli patriot, a die-hard Israeli who fought in two wars, and I’m trying to do whatever I can to put an end to the conflict... I’m not out for justice, I’m out to save lives.”
Like any filmmaker whose movie is about to have its premiere, Nesher received many phone calls about the release during our talk. After apologizing for the interruptions, he returned some of the calls while I made myself a cup of coffee. He has been at this a long time, and drawers and cabinets in his office kitchenette are filled with neatly labeled screenplays and even reels of film. It is easier to find an early draft of Turn Left at the End of the World there than a spoon. His office is decorated with an arresting statute of a woman melded to a table, done by his wife, Iris Nesher, an artist/photographer/ceramicist who is by his side on sets and takes many of the still photographs for his movies; and a framed poster of Federico Fellini’s coming-of-age drama, Amarcord. The refrigerator is dotted with magnets that show his family, and one has a picture of his daughter, Tom, a filmmaker and television presenter who made the Behind-the-Scenes feature for Image of Victory, and his son, Ari, who died in 2018 at 17 after being hit by a car. He does not bring up Ari’s name, but he doesn’t need to, because his son is always in his mind and his heart. He has always been engaged in the world, and his concern for preventing tragedy – for saving lives whenever possible – has grown even more intense since his family suffered this loss.
After he finished the pre-release phone calls, he spoke about why he chose to have Hassanein’s character narrate the film, noting that the Egyptian journalist “was 24 when he was covering the war, just like I was when I made Ha Lahaka [The Troupe].” He identified with the young Egyptian character on many levels, saying, “My personality was split between the two sides in the movie,” between Hassanein the aspiring filmmaker, devoted to portraying the truth of what he saw and creating art, and the Israelis on the kibbutz, passionate about fighting for the establishment of the state.
Image shows how both sides are pressured by their leaders, the Egyptians by King Farouk– who pretends to be present at the battle when he is not through “fake news” footage – and his advisers, and the Israelis by Abba Kovner, a Givati commander who urged the residents of Kibbutz Nitzanim to stay put (and later criticized those who survived for being captured). “Never believe your own bullshit,” Nesher said.
Pushing aside all notions of trendy politics, he insisted, “I’m not in a competition over who is more miserable.”
He recalled that when he presented his previous film, The Other Story, at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, “A guy got up and talked about the illegitimacy of Israel, saying we stole the Palestinians’ land. My response was, ‘We’re in the Lightbox theater in Toronto. It was built on Indian land. Should we stop the festival and tear down the theater?’ We don’t have to tear down the theater, we can be there and have a dialogue.”
The actors – both Jewish and Arab – had their own dialogue with Nesher and each other while making the movie. Nesher understood that the Arab actors “don’t see the war the same way I do,” and praised them for working with him to make the movie more accurate and nuanced.
“They helped me create empathy for both sides,” he said. “I was respectful of their attempt to be true to their characters... Their side of the story is told honestly but not exclusively.” He worked with other advisers, including some from Egypt, “to be sensitive to the smallest details,” and a sequence filmed in Tel Aviv depicting a fancy hotel in Cairo on New Year’s Eve as 1947 turned into 1948 is dazzling.
In an unusual situation, Yadin Gellman, who plays an IDF officer in charge of defending the kibbutz and who is a Special Forces veteran, trained the cast in combat and firearms for a month, including the Arab actors portraying the Egyptians. “It was important that their body language was correct,” said Nesher, who is critical of the sloppiness with which combat is often depicted on film. “This was art triumphing over bullshit,” he said.
Due to the pandemic, the cast and crew lived in a hotel near the Negev location where most of the movie was filmed and became “like a family. It was very intense, and many of them have stayed in touch... The Jews and Arabs came together and agreed to disagree.”
The movie was filmed entirely during the pandemic, in 2020, and at times it looked as if the show wouldn’t go on. Nesher praised Bleiberg, his producer, for sticking with the film – “he was truly heroic, he’s a great producer, like Sam Spiegel” – and Culture Minister Chili Tropper for providing funding to cover the extra costs of making the set safe.
“No one got sick,” he said. “It was divine intervention.” He was adamant throughout the shooting “that we cannot let corona be an excuse for the movie not being good enough.”
Critics who have seen the movie at previews agree that he got his wish, and he is excited for general audiences to see it now that it is finally opening after being postponed by the virus regulations.
“I take audiences very seriously,” he said. “No one owes you two hours of their life. I want to convey ideas and ask questions, but it must be entertaining. And the more truthful it is, the more entertaining it is.”