Cinematic artifacts

A documentary based on footage shot by Yitzhak Rabin is among the works up for an award for films based on archive material.

Leah Rabin 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leah Rabin 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The scene is familiar: old footage shot by an 8 mm camera of canals and parks in Paris, Michelangelo's David in Florence, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We see children, whose faces we may recognize, playing in their backyard. Or government ceremonies - military parades and air shows - with cameos by Israel's top leaders. Unfolding before us is a personal history that's both ordinary and extraordinary. We know the footage was filmed by Yitzhak Rabin and learn that, among many other things, he was also quite a decent cameraman. "Two hundred years from now, all the images we take today and consider rubbish will be invaluable," reflects Dan Muggia, artistic director of Italy's Roma Kolnoa Festival of Israeli and Jewish cinema. Muggia believes that fiction film, too, can be a documentary medium that shoots far more than actors. "It documents what's in front of the camera." For the fourth year running, a group of films to be presented at the Jerusalem Film Festival have been singled out as nominees for an award given by the Forum for the Preservation of Audio-Visual Memory in Israel, of which Muggia is a member. The long-named prize is "granted to a film of any genre that makes extensive, innovative and creative use of archival material," and as in past years has gathered a set of unique subjects and directors - a breadth of films from Israel, Europe, and North and South America. Limor Pinhasov's Filmed by Yitzhak (Israel) is a documentary based on the large amount of footage filmed by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin during 1963-1973. It begins with steady shots of Paris - from beautiful landscapes to repeated images of homeless people sleeping on the streets - and eventually shows his filming of touristic London and Florence, various rural scenes in Asia and Africa, and a series of city scenes in Iran. A long section devoted to his time as ambassador to the United States - during which he filmed not only New York, Washington and San Francisco but also a football game, as well as American television - suggests both the growth of Israel's relationship with its mega-ally and the large developmental difference between the two countries. Perhaps as Rabin took in the wonders of the world beyond with his camera-eye he began to imagine a new scope of existence for Israel. And throughout the film, as we watch nostalgic scenes of Rabin's children running around the house, we constantly look for the man who filmed them and are repeatedly reminded that he is no longer there. Lee Anne Schmitt's California Company Town (USA) is a catalogue of single-industry towns that have been ruined, sold or abandoned by their developers, which include both capitalist corporations and utopian socialists. Each location receives between three and five minutes, during which Schmitt narrates selected curios from its history. One unique segment includes shots of Manzanar, the California town that was turned into an internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII, intermingled with American propaganda films showing the camp's various activities, from theater to games to school. Schmitt's film makes use of Benning's signature style - long, uncut, unmoving takes - but moves quickly between each subject without giving a deeper understanding into the circumstances of each purported social tragedy. Igor Mayboroda's Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of 'Stalker' (Russia) claims to offer the hidden, "real" story behind the making of the cinematic masterpiece, during which cinematographer Georgy Rerberg had a falling out with director Andrei Tarkovsky and was replaced with Alexander Knyazhinsky. Mayboroda, who at the film's outset declares his friendship with and admiration of Rerberg, attempts to reconstruct the story of the distant dispute as an homage to the late cinematographer. He attempts to connect Rerberg's personal story - one of hampered creativity and lack of opportunities - with motifs of Stalinist repression. In his voiceover narration, Mayboroda directly suggests that the exacting and difficult Tarkovsky, who defected from the USSR in 1982, acted in a Stalinist manner when he erased Rerberg's name from the credits of Stalker. Aside from the film's revisionist tendencies (which admittedly leave a slight sour taste), it is also a tribute to a deeply talented Russian cinematic artist who seems never to have had the chance to connect his potential with realization. Tal Haim Yoffe's Clementine (Israel), a personal film in which Yoffe expects a baby at the same time that his last living grandmother is diagnosed with cancer, constructing a family tree and creating an audio-visual album, is a private way of telling a family story. Lirio Ferreira's The Man Who Bottled Clouds (USA/Brazil) presents the biography of Humberto Teixeira, a lawyer who studied music as a child and, together with Luiz Gonzaga, promoted the northeastern Brazilian rhythm of Baião. The film traces Teixeira's career as a lawyer, musician and promoter of Brazilian music abroad through interviews, landscapes and archival footage. Felix Moeller's Harlan: In the Shadow of the Jew Süss (Germany), about German filmmaker Veit Harlan who, under orders of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, adapted the story about Joseph Süss Oppenheimer for the screen. The film was based on an 1827 novella by Wilhelm Hauff (and not on the famous novel by Leon Feuchtwanger, which was a condemnation of anti-Semitism) about a businessman who is raised Jewish but who, before being hanged for crooked business dealings, learns that he was an illegitimate son of a German nobleman. In Harlans' Nazi film version, this crucial plot point is omitted, and Jews are portrayed with every possible damaging stereotype. The film was released in 1940 and seen by more than 20 million viewers in Germany, including SS agents about to be sent to hunt for Jews. Harlan was brought to trial twice for "crime against humanity" for making the film and was acquitted both times. In his documentary, Moeller returns to the subject and making of the film and talks to members of Harlan's extended family, which notably includes Harlan's niece Catherine Kubrick, Stanley Kubrick's wife. Erez Laufer's Rafting to Bombay (Israel) joins the director's family as they travel back to India in search of remnants related to his father's past as a child with a group of escapees from Nazi Germany. The family ends up arriving just as the 2008 Mumbai (Bombay) terrorist siege occurs, and the family sits in the hotel listening to an alternative version of the escape story as told by his grandmother. Narratives interweave as the screen is split into three simultaneous images, putting the present, past and distant past in the same frame. In the hands of able filmmakers, these kinds of outdated or unused images and sequences become raw material for the presentation of a story that didn't necessarily exist in the original footage. And with its prize, the Forum for the Preservation of Audio-Visual Memory in Israel - "a volunteer group of concerned citizens" as Muggia describes it - is working to promote this approach to dealing with and reexamining the past. As Muggia explains, the films that are nominated for this award can be personal, free, experimental works, and they can be professional straightforward documentaries - and everything in between. It's not simply about films that use archival material as evidence of what the speakers say nor about films that are like history books with photos. They're looking for someone doing more with the material, both artistically and technically. "Putting this kind of competition in a film festival is a statement," explains Muggia. "We're saying that the use of material that is well preserved and presented can create a new generation of works."