A look inward

A new exhibition shows a series of films that look inward at society.

look inward 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
look inward 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We often gripe about how the world portrays us, about Israel’s negative image in the world’s media. But what do we think about ourselves? How do we see ourselves? Warts and all? Or do we tend to apply some palliative veneer to ward off the dangers of introspection? Some of that will become clearer in the “Many Faces – Documentary Cinema in the Footsteps of Jewish and Israeli Identity” series, which is currently running at Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People. The 14 meetings take place every other Wednesday from 4:30 p.m.
to 7:45 p.m., with most incorporating screenings, a talk by the director and a question-and-answer session. The series is also sponsored by the New Fund for Cinema and Television and Tel Aviv University’s The Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education’s Center for Professional Development in Education, and many of the films were provided by the NFCT.
According to Rivka Aderet, who put together the series, it is not just a matter of showing us for what we really are by training the cameras on us but also of offering an idea of how Israeli society is seen through Israeli and non-Israeli eyes.
The first session, which took place on November 7, is a case in point. It featured the screening of a film called To Be Like Avi, which points a questioning, if not accusatory, finger at this country, a country with a powerful refugee history.
It is a highly emotive story which faces the Israeli establishment with having to wrestle with the problem of a bunch of teenaged refugees from Eritrea who do not have any option other than to stay in this country. The screening was followed by a lively discussion between the audience and filmmakers Inbal Sprinzak and Noam Pinhas, and Adv. Oded Peller, who heads the immigration and status section of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
This is the second time the documentary series is taking place at Beit Hatfutsot, and Aderet says there is an abundance of fertile ground for producing more fascinating material. “There is never a dull moment in this country,” she notes. “There is always something interesting happening here.”
The footage fare is, indeed, wide ranging and intriguing. There are some hard-hitting and emotional works in the lineup, such as One Day after Peace, in which a bereaved South African-born mother tries to make sense of the killing of her son while he was on reserve army duty and looks for answers here and in the country of her birth. The film, which was made by Miri and Erez Laufer, takes a comprehensive view of the issue and features bereaved families, Israelis and Palestinians of varying political views as well as some leading global personalities, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Adriaan Vlok. Vlok was law and order minister of South Africa at the tail-end of the apartheid regime, which was one of the most violent periods in South Africa’s history.
The more benevolent face of this country is in evidence in this Wednesday’s screening of Your Excellency Mr. Ambassador, which tells the story of our ambassador to Cameroon, Mickey Arbel, who goes beyond the call of duty to try to help local farmers solve their irrigation problems. His trips around the West African country also lead to some soul searching.
Israel is, of course, a veritable cultural melting pot, and quite a few ethnic communities and social sectors have found their way into this year’s series. The March 13 meeting, Let’s Cross the Silk Road, features the opening of a Beit Hatfutsot exhibition based on the Jewish heritage of Jewry from Bukhara and Central Asia, with a talk by curator Orit Engelberg. The slot also includes a presentation of video clips and images of the human and physical landscapes of Bukhara, and there will be a session with researcher and exhibition consultant Dr. Zeev Levin.
The public will also have an opportunity to get a better handle on Bukharan heritage on April 17, with some highenergy entertainment courtesy of the internationally renowned Alaev Family ensemble, which comprises three generations of the clan led by 80-year-old multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Allo Alaev. The aptly named show, From Generation to Generation, includes some ethnic dancing routines, and a talk by Bukhara Jewry researcher and documentarian Amos Ashrov.
Aderet has been working at Beit Hatfutsot for almost three decades and, naturally, during that time she has seen a lot of changes, both in Israeli society and in the way it is portrayed in documentary films.
“A decade ago, for example, you didn’t have the refugee problem in this country,” she notes. “We have a young man, called Issa, who works in the cafeteria here, who is a refugee. I’m sure that a few years ago people would simply not have noticed him because they would have been less aware of the refugee problem.”
Films can help in that regard. “If you have a documentary about refugees, like To Be Like Avi, it raises awareness of the problem,” she continues, “and I think that is an important contribution of documentaries like this.”
The Holocaust features several times in the series. Six Million and One, by veteran documentarian David Fisher, is a highly personal voyage into the depths of the horrors of the Holocaust. Fisher’s late father survived the camps and, following his death, Fisher came across his father’s diary which contained an account of his experiences in a forced labor camp in the Austrian mountains. Several years later, Fisher and his siblings embarked on a familial roots odyssey, retracing their father’s steps to reconcile their own history with that of the broader context of the Holocaust. Fisher will attend the December 19 screening and take part in a Q&A session.
One of the most fascinating items in the series is the February 27 screening of Sabra, the first feature film made in this part of the world, which was made by Polish director Alexander Ford in 1932. Sabra presents a rather primitive portrayal of life in pre-state Palestine, and centers on a group of pioneers who struggle to make a go of it here due to challenging logistics – such as finding a reliable source of water and attacks by local Arabs who are not too happy about the arrival of their new Jewish neighbors. The film was shown only a handful of times in various places around the world and was forgotten about for several decades until cinema researcher Yaakov Gross got down to restoring the footage. Sabra was shown at this year’s International Film Festival in Jerusalem in its renewed state. Gross will be at Beit Hatfutsot in February to talk about the film.
That session of the series will actually be a double-header, and will follow a screening of Ponevezh Time, which is based on life at the renowned Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. What is particularly intriguing about this work is that it was made by a religious man, Yonatan Indursky, who was once a student at the institution.
“Indursky made a very revealing film about the yeshiva, but he wasn’t too intrusive,” explains Aderet. “He got the full cooperation of the yeshiva heads and everyone else in the film. I think it is a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of a world which is normally closed off to most Israelis.”
There is a sense of intimacy about quite a few of the documentaries, and there are all sorts of alluring items in the program.
There are delightful vignettes that dip into the lives of Jewish communities around the world, such as at the January 16 screening of The Old Home, which will be presented by Aderet and which comprises rare footage stored in the Beit Hatfutsot archives of life in Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Algeria, Germany and Morocco, to mention but a few countries. A couple of weeks after that, Family Status, made by family researcher husband-and-wife team Rali and Avner Abrahami, will show the fruits of 10 years’ labor during which they scoured the country for interesting material about Israeli families from all sorts of communities, cultural backgrounds and walks of life.
Arik Bernstein’s The Way We Saw, which will be shown on December 5, certainly takes a unique perspective on the filmic material. All the footage was shot by amateurs, with Super-8 cameras, between the 1930s and the 1970s. The images comes from a very wide spectrum of countries as well as sectors of the public, including shots of a very private and non-statesmanlike Moshe Dayan taken by his son Udi, and an amazing tale of a bunch of Israeli men taking some time out in Sinai in October 1973 when they witness an Egyptian MiG jet being downed by an Israeli Phantom, and they begin to realize some major action is afoot. It is only when they turn on the car radio that they learn that the Yom Kippur War has begun. Another fascinating segment of The Way We Saw features part of the annals of the Shamia family from Baghdad, starting with footage of the family in Iraq in 1950 and continuing to their subsequent, far less materially comfortable life in Israel several years later.
Bernstein trawled hundreds of hours of film before painstakingly paring it all down to 100 minutes. He says there are quite a few surprises in the final cut. Westerners may normally relate to non-Western societies of yesteryear as being technologically disadvantaged, for instance, but it seems that not everyone in Arab countries of half a century ago or more was challenged in that respect. “Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s had quite a developed film industry, and quite a few people had home cameras,” Bernstein explains.
The project began with something of a technological drawback itself. “We started gathering the films back in 2003,” says Bernstein, “when the Internet wasn’t that advanced. Certainly, there was nothing like YouTube. There was a site called Hevre, where people could register according to categories like their old school, neighborhood etc. I got to maybe 100 people through that, but not a million like you can do today. It was a bit Sisyphean.”
The project had very personal beginnings. “My mother comes from Philadelphia and she was given a movie camera when she got married,” says Bernstein. “So I grew up with all sorts of wonderful home movies, although sadly the one with the label “Wedding” on it, from my parents’ wedding, did not survive.” He was given a further nudge in the direction of what eventually became The Way We Saw from an unlikely source.
“I saw a German movie which was based on all sorts of home movies,” says Bernstein. “It was a very bad film but I suddenly realized the potential of movies shot on Super-8 cameras, as historical documents, even if the events shown are intimate and not seemingly of any historical importance.”
There was another technical hitch to be addressed, which spawned some wonderful added value for The Way We Saw. “Super-8 film is silent, so I went back to lots of the people who had sent me the footage and I asked them to narrate what we see in their films. I think that enhances the final product.”
Bernstein chose the name The Way We Saw rather than The Way We Were – with apologies to fans of the famous Hollywood movie, in all its various guises. “Everything in the film is from the point of view of the cameraman. Also, The Way We Were implies something passive. What is important here is what the cameramen shot, what they documented and how they captured and related to their reality at the time.”
Although the footage in The Way We Saw is taken from all sorts of cultural and social milieus, Bernstein says there was a premeditated objective to the whole exercise. “My agenda was, first and foremost, that there was no agenda,” he says somewhat enigmatically. “I wanted to show that what is normally called ‘historic’ or ‘history’ is something that has been crafted with a set agenda in mind. It can be the agenda of the IDF or of Menachem Begin or Zionism. What we wanted to say with this film was that history does not comprise the agenda of a particular person or a person who wants to impart it; rather, a different kind of historiography. At the end of the day, history is made of the people who lived it. History is ‘his story’ and the story of the people who were there. The history of wars, for example, is always related by the victors, and they always make sure that their version is taught in schools and passed on to future generations. The Way We Saw takes a different, more personal viewpoint.”
Aderet says that sentiment is echoed through much of “Many Faces – Documentary Cinema in the Footsteps of Jewish and Israeli Identity.” “We have all these stereotypical images of Jews living in all sorts of communities around the world. But then you see a film with shots of Jews in a small town – not a major city – in Romania, of a wedding in 1926 and you see they are not the so-called typical shtetl Jews, where the young men study at yeshiva. The groom is a doctor and the bride is a nursing student. There are lots of surprises in this series.”
For more information about the “Many Faces – Documentary Cinema in the Footsteps of Jewish and Israeli Identity” series: (03) 745- 7908, www.bh.org.il or Rivka@bh.org.il