Music in a time of madness

With her film ‘Violins in Wartime’, director Yael Katzir talks about power of music in times of conflict.

'Violins in Wartime' 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Yael Katzir)
'Violins in Wartime' 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Yael Katzir)
When Yael Katzir made her documentary, Violins in Wartime, which is about a violin maker and a music competition during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, she had no idea it would be shown during another crisis.
But it has its world premiere this week at the Jewish Eye Film Festival in Ashkelon, an international festival of films of Jewish interest that runs until November 21.
Organizers of the film festival chose not to cancel the event in spite of the spate of grad rockets fired at the South of Israel over the last few months. And Katzir is pleased with this decision.
“I am so happy that my film will be shown in Ashkelon right now. When the Second Lebanon War started I felt something so typical of Israelis, I felt previous traumas open up. Even though my son was already out of the army and was in America, I would wake up anyway at 4 a.m., which I call the anxiety hour. I felt close to breaking, and wondered what I could do about this war that had just begun.”
The answer to her dilemma came from an unexpected source. Katzir, a filmmaker, author, professor of art history and director of the cable station at Beit Berl Academic College, was at work one day when she heard violinists playing in a classroom.
“They had moved the summer course of Keshet Eilon Masterclass for violinists from around the world to Beit Berl, because the Keshet Eilon campus was in the Galilee [close to where rockets were being fired from Lebanon]. The course was in its 16th year, and they pick participants carefully, from all over the world.
They were in dire straits about what to do and Beit Berl, which is in Kfar Saba, opened its gates. I was head of the community TV station, and I realized I had to make a film about this. About the power of music and how it was going on in spite of the war.”
But even a documentary has to have a central character, and Katzir wasn’t sure where to focus.
“I thought about some of the distinguished teachers, like Shlomo Mintz and Ida Haendel. But they are not part of our daily reality here.”
When she got to know Amnon Weinschtein, who restores, creates and repairs violins for the participants, she knew she had found the right person to center the film.
“Amnon’s son was drafted, and I knew that here was something deeper. I felt he is the guy who is behind the stage, like we, the Israelis who are home during the war, we are behind the stage in a way, too. We are the silent voices, whether you agree with the decision to go to war or you don’t – you are here.”
SHE BECAME especially interested in the role of “the violin as a Jewish symbol. Amnon’s involvement in restoring violins that were lost in the Holocaust, it’s his way to give a voice to the people who died in the Holocaust.”
Violinist Ida Haendel emphasizes this point further, as she describes a concert she performed at Auschwitz for Pope Benedict XVI, a clip from which is shown in the film.
Amnon and his wife, Assi (who is from the famous Bielski family, the Jewish partisans who were the basis for the recent film, Defiance), who visits Haifa at the height of the war to see her mother, give voice and shape to Katzir’s own feelings about the war.
“You sit in living room and it enters your own reality.
You’re watching the war on television and dreading that you’ll get a phone call” that brings bad news about someone you know, says Katzir. In the film, the call that Amnon and his wife get is about their son’s best friend, who is badly wounded.
“When Amnon gets the call, he couldn’t do anything.
He goes to his atelier [workshop] and couldn’t work. I was making the documentary and showed this. It doesn’t happen every day that the person you’re making the film about can’t work. But I felt it was important to show this in the movie,” she says, of an unusual film about an Israeli reality that has become all too common.
Getting the financing and making the film were not easy.
“My students helped me a lot. I had three young women students who are very religious who helped me. They kept saying, You have to go on. I called them, ‘the women of the war.’ That kind of encouragement helps a lot. That’s how you reach the finish line.”