Terra Incognita: Israel’s missing movies

Isn’t it time for Israel to find some characters from its past that are fit for the silver screen?

Samson (Jose Cura) and Delilah (Denyse Graves) 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Samson (Jose Cura) and Delilah (Denyse Graves) 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This past November two biographical films, a genre often referred to as biopics, opened in the US and UK. They chronicle the lives of controversial political leaders from those nations’ history. As of today they have brought in a healthy $100 million in revenue. The success of these films and the paucity of the genre in Israel begs the question: Isn’t it time for Israel to find some characters from its past that are fit for the silver screen?
J. Edgar was directed by Clint Eastwood and starred Leonardo DiCaprio as the irascible, oddball FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It chronicles the life of the famed ‘G-man’ who founded the FBI in 1935 and ran it for almost 40 years.
The film is not necessarily a hagiographic portrayal of this American original, who rubbed shoulders with seven presidents. Part of the film examines the innovations that Hoover endeavored to bring to law enforcement, such as a fingerprint database and hiring college-educated men as detectives. It also focuses on Hoover’s sexuality and his close relationship with his deputy Clyde Tolson.
The Iron Lady, a biopic of Margaret Thatcher, has accumulated a great deal of praise, not only for Meryl Streep’s role as the former British prime minister, but also for tackling the subject of dementia. In the US it was received with less interest, partly because it focuses on an English topic, but also because of its style.
The director chose to use a series of flashbacks, similar to how J. Edgar was filmed, but there are many less meaningful stories about Thatcher’s policies.
Roger Ebert, the film critic, called the film “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Whatever the merits of the two films, what is worth paying attention to is the fact that it is not uncommon in Hollywood or elsewhere for movies to explore a nation’s past. Many films have been made about JFK, General George Patton, Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill and others. But if we turn our attention to Israel we will find that there are almost no biopics of figures from Israeli or Jewish history.
Yet this is not due to any lack of history or compelling characters. The history of the British Mandate, with its derring-do underground fighters, is rife with subjects to examine. Even in the famous fictional stories of Israel’s brilliant author Shai Agnon, there are characters and scenes that beg to be put on film.
Like the critics of Thatcher who wondered about the wisdom of portraying an elderly prime minister’s decline into dementia and the ability of a movie to examine a political topic, there is the problem that Israel’s politics seem too close to home. For instance, any movie that looked the prime ministers, except David Ben-Gurion, might be criticized as attempting to manipulate the public into voting for their ideological descendants.
A biopic of Ben-Gurion would be criticized for not showing the leader in a perfect light, or not critiquing him enough. This is the tragedy of politics in a small country perhaps. But what about searching into a Jewish past to find good topics?
The 2009 Spanish film Agora did just that. It explored the history of Roman Egypt at it turned from a Pagan imperial outpost to a Christian land. The film centers on the Pagan philosopher Hypatia, played by Rachel Weisz. During the middle of the story the city’s Jewish population is persecuted by the emerging Christian church.
Agora fails to portray the Jews in a meaningful way, instead focusing on the decline of Greek philosophy. However if such a film had been the brainchild of a director here it could have focused on the Jewish side of the story. And those Jewish stories, in the Roman period, or during and after the expulsion from Spain, are all awaiting their muse. The biopic has found its place in the West. It is time it came here as well.