War stories told in coronavirus shadow captivate captive Israeli audience

Suddenly, as the coronavirus pandemic casts a long shadow over Israeli life, it seems Israelis want to look back at the country’s two most devastating wars in terms of loss of life.

AVIV ALUSH in ‘Valley of Tears.’ (photo credit: VERED ADIR)
AVIV ALUSH in ‘Valley of Tears.’
(photo credit: VERED ADIR)
While Israeli cinema has tackled some wars in depth – about a decade ago, there were several well-received films about the First Lebanon War, for example – other wars, notably the Yom Kippur War and the War of Independence, have rarely been dramatized on screen, even though both were of critical importance to Israeli identity and history.
But that is changing now, on both the big and small screens, as Valley of Tears, a television series about the Yom Kippur War has received rave reviews and a great deal of attention, reviving discussions about the war, and Avi Nesher, one of Israel’s leading directors, is currently filming an Independence War epic, Portrait of Victory.
Suddenly, as the coronavirus pandemic casts a long shadow over Israeli life, it seems Israelis want to look back at the country’s two most devastating wars in terms of loss of life and work through them.
Valley of Tears has been a huge hit in Israel since it premiered on KAN 11 in Israel in October and has been sold to HBO Max, where it will begin streaming on November 12. For many Israelis, history is divided into before and after the Yom Kippur War, because it eroded trust between many Israelis and the government, which did not heed warnings that war was imminent and did not prepare soldiers, who were vastly outnumbered, to defend against the attack. The political controversy after the war had far-reaching repercussions and a great many veterans of the war were treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Only a handful of movies – and not very high-profile ones – were made about the Yom Kippur War, and most of these, according to film critic and Israeli cinema scholar Shmuel Duvdevani, who teaches film at Tel Aviv University, “were about the aftermath of the war, not the war itself. These movies were about dealing with the trauma from the war.”
Valley of Tears is a gripping and emotional series that presents a snapshot of Israeli society in the early ’70s that illuminates how the war impacted society. The cast includes Lior Ashkenazi (Walk on Water, Our Boys) as a left-wing radio reporter searching for his son (Lee Biran), Aviv Alush (Beauty and the Baker) as a Golani officer and commander of the security force at the Mount Hermon outpost, where Israelis had to face off against much greater numbers of Syrians, and Joy Rieger (The Other Story) as a soldier who stays behind even though all the other female soldiers were evacuated.
Another key character is Avinoam (Shahar Taboch), a nerdy soldier in the intelligence unit on Mount Hermon who is the first there to realize that war is about to break out and fights to get his commanders to take him seriously. In another plot line that showcases a very different side of Israeli society in the ’70s, activists from the Black Panthers group of radical Mizrahim from the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem (Maor Schwitzer, Ofer Hayoun and Imri Biton) head into battle with mixed emotions about the government they are fighting for.
In an interview when the series was released, Daniel Amsel, who created and wrote the series with Ron Leshem and Amit Cohen, spoke about how carefully they researched Valley of Tears and how they tried to honor the fighters by presenting their experiences accurately.
The series has sparked many discussions of the war in the media, with veterans talking about how it has made them feel, even discussing their PTSD publicly, once a taboo. NATAL, the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center, a nonprofit organization that specializes in the field of war- and terror-related trauma, has been broadcasting its number and a message following the broadcast of each episode of Valley of Tears. Ahead of the broadcast of the first episode, Valley of Tears director Yaron Zilberman met with volunteers from the NATAL helpline, and showed them scenes from the series that he thought might be particularly triggering to veterans.
While many veterans have embraced and praised the series, Ami Yachin, an investment banker who served in the 7th Brigade in the Valley of Tears battle when he was just 18, expressed some reservations about it, saying, “The series is not a documentary.” He said the scenes of people supposedly experiencing shell shock do not resemble what he observed. “People in shock get very quiet and keep functioning like machines, they don’t scream and shoot all over the way they do in the series,” he said. But he acknowledged that the series brought back the atmosphere of his war experience, “almost the smell of it.”
The strongest reaction he had watching it was the clips of prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan at the beginning of the first episode. “I felt it was toughest to watch the lies of the leadership,” which led to a “lack of belief in our leaders.” When Meir and Dayan were brought to meet with Yachin and his fellow soldiers at the end of the war, “they took away our weapons. They were afraid we would shoot Golda and Dayan.”
All in all, he said he was happy that the series was created: “Anything that brings up this war is good for us all.... The culture is still in shell shock from this war.”
WHILE THE War of Independence in 1948 led to the creation of Israel, few Israeli films have tackled it. Avi Nesher, who has been managing to film his War of Independence epic in the Negev and Tel Aviv under very challenging conditions during the pandemic, sees connections between what is going on today and the fact that Israelis are currently interested in dramas about these two wars.
“With the virus, people are worried about the future. And to understand the future you must discuss the past, and artists can look at war from different perspectives.... This examination of war comes during a time when we all have to rethink how we conduct ourselves. The virus is the war we are fighting now and it’s natural for us to look back at other wars.”
The War of Independence captured the imagination of the world, and several foreign movies about the war were filmed here. The 1955 film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was the first feature film made in Israel, and it is a British production with a British producer and director, and a mix of Israeli and British actors. It’s a straightforward, somewhat dated look at heroism and sacrifice.
The most famous of all fictional depictions of Israel on film is the 1960 Otto Preminger film Exodus, an adaptation of the Leon Uris bestseller, focusing on the Independence War and the bravery of the Israeli warrior Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman. Another Hollywood look at this war is Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), starring Kirk Douglas, in which he plays Col. Mickey Marcus, an American veteran who comes to Israel to fight.
But uniquely Israeli stories of this war, not the Hollywood version, have largely not been told.
Nesher himself made one of the only previous Israeli films about this era, Rage and Glory (1984), a look at a cell of underground fighters in Jerusalem in the 1940s.
Portrait of Victory is based, in part, on the story of the father of the producer, Ehud Bleiberg, who lived on a kibbutz near the Egyptian border during the war. But unlike the previous depictions of the war, notably the Hollywood ones, Portrait of Victory looks at the war from both the Israeli and Egyptian perspectives, and focuses on a kibbutz and its members and an Egyptian newsreel team embedded with troops to document what Egyptian commanders were sure would be a victory. The film features a cast of Israel’s young, rising stars, both Jewish and Arab, including Rieger, Meshi Kleinstein, Ala Dakka, and Amir Khoury.
“Whenever I make a movie, I am driven by something that needs to be said, something that stirs my imagination.... The birth of a nation takes my breath away. There’s nothing equivalent in the world, I don’t know of any other nation based on an idea,” he said.
He said he found it interesting that he was filming Portrait of Victory just as Israel announced treaties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.
“We have here two different stories, based on the same set of facts, seen by young people at the eye of the storm,” he said. “I am as much of a patriot as any Israeli alive. I love this country and will fight to the last bullet to defend it. But I think it’s unwise not to realize that each side has a narrative of its own.”
Nesher, who has had to increase the budget of the film by about 20% in order to comply with Health Ministry regulations, acknowledged that a grant from Culture Minister Chili Tropper has enabled them to keep going and said, “I don’t want to be a glass half-full guy at this point. It’s maybe 1/10 full. But people are rethinking everything. It’s a very interesting time.”
The fact that Portrait of Victory is being made at just the time that Valley of Tears has Israelis glued to their screens, “is a coincidence, but it’s an interesting coincidence,” said Duvdevani. “They keep comparing the coronavirus to a war and these stories are being told in the shadow of the virus.”