Virtual gatherings, as we all know, are nothing on the real corporeal thing. But, as they say in Yorkshire, “owt is better than nowt.” For those who may not be fully fluent in the vernacular of God’s Own Country (aka Britain’s largest county), that translates as “something is better than nothing.”
Beit Avi Chai is certainly offering “something” for this Remembrance Day, as it has for the past eight years. The Jerusalem institution’s national commemorative event takes the form of screenings of short animated movies based on the lives of IDF soldiers who have fallen in this country’s far too manifold military campaigns. It is, naturally, a highly emotive and evocative venture, with family members and friends gathering at the center to watch delicately crafted portrayals of their departed loved ones.
The screenings take place as part of the “A Face. The Day. A Memorial.” slot of the Watching and Remembering program, overseen by project manager Yotvat Feiersen-Weil, production coordinator Liran Lifschitz and artistic advisor Osi Vald, with the films subsequently uploaded to the Beit Avi Chai website for viewing by the general public.
It is, of course, a moving experience for one and all, but the accent of the artistic content is very much on the positive aspects of the subject’s life. There are highly poignant and even sad vignettes, but, overall, the filmmakers adopt a celebratory stance on the subject matter.
This year’s lineup includes three works, about four soldiers who didn’t make it past their 23rd birthdays. One, Mariana Raskin’s About the Honey, is particularly tragic. It relates the story of twins, Ehud and Hagai Gordon, who were both killed in the Yom Kippur War, within the space of just 13 days.
“Despite the terrible tragedy, it seems that the memory of the Gordon twins has almost been forgotten,” Feiersen-Weil notes. “They were both beekeepers, even though they had quite different personalities. Everybody knows about the Peretz family and their heavy loss, and we produced a film about them, but no one seems to know about the Gordon brothers. That’s incredible.” The former refers to the heart-wrenching tale of Uriel Peretz, who died in battle in Lebanon in 1998, and the death of his brother Eliraz, 12 years later, in Gaza.
But the project’s modus operandi is very much on the positive side, and endeavors to steer clear of a national sense of heroism, patriotism and courage displayed by the fallen on the battlefield. “A Face” is about the person themselves, their childhood and family backdrop, and how they reached young adulthood, and also about their potential and who they may have become.
THAT RESONATES – almost literally – in Inbal Ochyon’s The Melody of His Life, which offers a heartwarming portrayal of Tzachi Itach, who died in Lebanon at the Beaufort Castle, a Crusader fortress in the southeast of the country, which was always considered an important strategic stronghold. Itach was the last Israeli soldier to die before the IDF finally withdrew at the end of the long, drawn-out aftermath of the First Lebanon War, originally called Operation Peace for Galilee, which began in 1982.
It seems that Itach, who was just 19 years old when he was killed, was a gifted musician and generous soul.
“I have been following the memorial project for a few years now, and this year Beit Avi Chai contacted me about making a film, and they sent me descriptions of some of the topics,” says Ochyon.
The story of Itach caught her eye.
“I related to Tzachi on a personal level,” Ochyon continues, “because of the connection with music and creation. That really excited me.”
Without wanting to play the amateur psychologist line, it is probably not stretching things too far to suggest that Ochyon also found a degree of vicarious fulfillment by immersing herself in some of the milestones of Itach’s tragically short life.
Itach was found to be blessed with perfect pitch at the tender of six, and he quickly began putting his God-given gift to practice, as he developed his musical keyboard skills. As a child he provided the live musical accompaniment at various official school and municipal events and ceremonies.
Itach was also a generous soul and often volunteered to play for disadvantaged families. Itach also made the most of his downtime in the army, and, when he was off duty south of the Lebanese border, he performed for people, huddled in bomb shelters across the north of Israel, while rockets were launched by the Hezbollah.
Small wonder, then, that one of Itach’s favorite pop numbers was a ballad called “Latet” – To Give – which was a hit for vocalist Boaz Sharabi in the late eighties. When Itach’s mother heard the song on the radio, she called her son, who was then stationed at the Beaufort, to play it for him.
Itach didn’t answer, as he had sprung into action to repel an attack on the IDF position, from which he never returned. Itach’s mother only got through to her son’s voicemail, and when his phone was returned to the family, along with his other effects, she discovered that the recording coincided with the precise moment of Tzachi’s death.
Ochyon, who graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s animation department seven years ago, knew she was taking on a hefty commitment along with the creative maze she had to navigate. Delicacy and sensitivity were high on her to-do list.
“There was something very challenging about this,” she concurs. “It is very complex and a very sad story.”
She says she was determined to do Itach and his family justice. “I chose to tell the parts that, to me, felt essential, so that his family members, when they watched the film, would be able to connect with it.”
Naturally, Ochyon saw the recording of “Latet” on Itach’s cellphone as a poignant moment that would feature in the script. The filmmaker felt that could help to convey a fundamental part of Itach’s personality and his generous take on life and the people around him.
“While his mother listens to the song, and leaves it on Tzachi’s voicemail, she, in fact, sends him the music that he played himself. My hope was that, maybe, just as he gave people a lot of joy and comfort, when they had hard times, through his music that would provide his family members with some comfort.”
Ochyon says that, while she stops short of describing the film as “a mission”, she says she invested a lot of herself, both as a person and as an artist, in The Melody of His Life.
“I’d say this was a personal piece of work. I connected strongly with Tzachi and the things he did. I really wanted to take part in this project which allows people to learn something about a soldier who was killed, and enables the family to commemorate him. That is very important.”
THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic and ensuing lockdown not only mean that this year’s screenings, which also include Yoni Salmon and Dori Bushari’s film The Gates of the Garden of Eden, about 20-year-old Ori Ansbacher, who was murdered by a terrorist while she was doing her National Service, will not take place at Beit Avi Chai, they also scuppered the center’s plans to widen the event’s consumer and geographic hinterland.
“This year the project was supposed to include events in all major cities around the country, for the first time,” Feiersen-Weil says, adding that the ambitious initiative was simply a natural response to growing demand. “Last year we held the event in the Bait Avi Chai interior yard, and all the tickets were snapped up within minutes.”
Demand outstripped supply by a country mile. “Last year we checked how many applications there were for tickets. There were 8,000 requests, and the yard only holds around 500. We were going to have events at cinematheques and municipal premises all over Israel. It was going to be a really big happening this year.”
That will, of course, have to remain on hold for a while, and hopefully we will all be virus-free next year, and the center will be able to allow people in other parts of the country to share the emotive screening experience in person and as members of audiences.
Thankfully, at least one part of the Jerusalem institution’s developmental plans will be able to take place this year, thanks to the now ubiquitous Zoom video conferencing technology.
“The general public will be able to watch the films and will also be able to meet the bereaved families on Zoom sessions,” Feiersen-Weil explains. “It is our way to make sure the families are not left on their own at this time.”
Everyone is more than welcome to join what the project manager calls “the Beit Avi Chai community,” with the venture also involving Elyasaf Peretz, one of Uriel and Eliraz’s brothers.
“People will be able to hear more about the families’ personal stories and, with Elyasaf’s help, we will expand the project much further, so that other bereaved families – not just the ones who feature in the various films – can also meet, and we can give them all a virtual hug. We can only do our best in the present circumstances. We want to combine offering an alternative to the major [Remembrance Day] events and personal encounters. I hope the sentiment and feelings we try to put across will leave an even deeper impression, because of the situation we are all in right now.”
That sounds like a decent and moving second best.
To view the films and for further information: www.bac.org.il/memory