A Sober Look at Utopia (Extract)

An award-winning documentary film on kibbutz life by a former kibbutznik has struck a chord with Israeli audiences

26kibbutz (photo credit: Amnon Bahir)
(photo credit: Amnon Bahir)
Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. More than 60 years have passed since she placed her baby in the communal children's home, but the kibbutz mother still recalls the unease and pain she felt upon being separated from her newborn child: "Was that a natural thing to do, I ask you?" she laments. This is just one emotionally-charged moment in "Children of the Sun," a film that explores an aspect of life which was unique to the Israeli kibbutz movement: communal children's homes where youngsters were looked after by child-care workers from birth and allowed to be with their parents for only a few hours a day. Combining old home movies with the poignant recollections of people who grew up in children's homes, filmmaker Ran Tal has created a riveting cinematic study that challenges viewers to reexamine the kibbutz way of life and the pivotal role it played in forming the collective identity of Israeli society. The winner of the Best Documentary Award at the 2007 Jerusalem Film Festival, "Children of the Sun" has struck a deep chord with Israeli audiences well beyond the confines of the kibbutz. The film has sold a record-breaking number of movie theater tickets for a documentary and continues to be shown in Israeli theaters even after being broadcast on television. It is currently being screened at film festivals across North America and will be broadcast in the United States on the Sundance Channel later this year. Filmmaker Ran Tal, 44, grew up in a children's home in Kibbutz Beit Hashita in the Jezreel Valley. His mother, who is among the interviewees in the film, was raised in a children's home in the same kibbutz. In an interview with The Report, Tal explains that he wasn't interested in doing a film about victimization. "I don't think my parents saw themselves as victims. I didn't want to ask my mother why she brought me up this way. I wasn't trying to attack or defend the kibbutz," says Tal. "I just wanted to explore the kibbutz, which is such an important part of my identity and, to me, the most dramatic story within the Zionist narrative. "Because the radical way in which the kibbutz took apart the traditional family is what made the kibbutz such a radical place, it is through the prism of the family that I decided to focus the film," he says. In making "Children of the Sun," Tal interviewed some 30 first generation kibbutz children who were communally raised from the 1920s through the 1940s. Tal chose to concentrate on the early days of the kibbutz because that was a period in which communal values were rigorously enforced. "The ideological justifications were directly connected to the writings of Marx and Engels," he says, pointing out that by the 1960s and 70s the members of his generation were raised in what Tal desribes as a "kibbutz-lite" society with relatively fewer ideological underpinnings. In addition to communism and Zionism, the kibbutz founders were also strongly influenced by the emerging theories of Freud. "They believed they had the answer to the alienated neurotic Western man that Freud described and that they could create a new human being living in a utopia. This new human being would be the product of parents who only gave love and were not involved in their children's education," says Tal. One practice reflecting the ideological atmosphere of those early days was the way in which children received their names. As one interviewee in the film recalls: "My father wanted to name me Nachum after his father. But then an important kibbutz member suggested another name... My father got angry and said, 'What do you mean ? He's my son.' 'He may be your son but he belongs to the kibbutz. We are his spiritual family. The majority will decide, not you.' There was a vote... Nachum won by 8 votes." The anecdote may seem harsh yet the speaker tells the story in a tone of voice that conveys warmth and understanding - even humor. This ability to look at events from many different emotional perspectives characterizes the entire film. "I didn't want to present a one-sided view. I wanted to show how events could be interpreted and remembered in different ways, a sort of 'Rashomon' of the kibbutz," says Tal, referring to the Japanese film "Rashomon," in which a single event is retold in different ways by several participants. In "Children of the Sun," Tal groups the memories he has assembled into five chapters. Each chapter mixes positive and negative vignettes with visuals that often seem to contradict what is being said. The first chapter, "Separation," deals with early childhood memories and presents some of the film's most jarring juxtapositions. We see young smiling children being put to bed by their caregivers but the voices of those children - today people in their 60s and 70s - tell a different story. One woman recalls that "I felt there was no way I could make it through the night without my mother... I would go from tree to tree to avoid the night guard... I wanted to be with her." And as we see parents happily playing with their children on the kibbutz lawn, another woman recalls, "It really makes no sense but I can't remember anything at all of the time spent with my parents... It was all very proper. There were no arguments, no shouting, no hugging, no kissing... We never saw our parents naked, we never saw them kissing. We would wait for a birthday so we could say to father: 'Give mommy a kiss...'" The second chapter, "The Group," describes the upside and downside of growing up in an egalitarian peer group. "Everyone received one pair of pants, one shirt, one pair of sandals... I'm happy it was like that," recalls one man. And another notes nostalgically that "the kind of freedom we had could never be recreated." We see children roaming freely across the kibbutz grounds, seemingly without the interventions of adults and the apprehensions of city life. But the nostalgia is shattered by memories of how some of the egalitarian practices, which included boys and girls showering together, led to humiliation. A woman, recalling being mocked during her puberty years, remarks: "Until my dying day I won't forget those showers." "The Elite" describes how the children were educated to be role models for the rest of Israeli society, with an emphasis placed on the importance of military service and self-sacrifice. One of the few occasions that the children were taken outside the kibbutz was to participate in May Day parades in cities like Tel Aviv. Participating in the parades is recalled with much pride: "We were the top of the world... the kibbutz was the real thing... I felt a certain superiority as a girl at the age of 11 [compared to city kids]." Another notes drily that her only recollection of the annual event is being given a new pair of sandals. In "A Second Life," the first generation of kibbutz-raised children look at what it was like to become parents. Some remember the advantages of the communal child-raising system. "It was convenient... We did whatever we wanted." Others describe the pain of separation. "When my son was born, I took him to the nursery and came back home and started crying. I felt lonely." The final chapter, "The Disintegration," covers many topics including the closing of the communal homes, the changes in the kibbutz way of life and the departure of many members. One woman notes that when she moved to the city she had to get used to starting sentences with the pronoun "I" rather than "we." Is the harsh name of the final chapter justified? After all, there are still more than 200 kibbutzim today, many with thriving industries. Tal acknowledges that if he had to make the film again he probably would have added a question mark after the word disintegration. Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.