Film Review: Israel: A Home Movie

The chaotic and hopeful history of a young nation is idiosyncratically told through this kaleidoscopic barrage of home-movie footage that ranges from the kitchen to the battlefield.

Eliav Lilti and Arik Bernstein’s serene stunner of a documentary starts in nervous hope and ends in foreshadowed gloom; in between there’s packed more terror and joy than most feature dramas that will hit screens this year. What the filmmakers did was patch together the cream of hundreds of hours of 8mm, 16mm and Super-8 amateur footage shot by Israelis between 1930 and the 1970s. The tightly edited film that results is a thoughtful rumination on history and perspective as much as it is a document of the time and place itself.

The footage begins in black-and-white, in a land that looks positively medieval despite the 20th century already being a third over with. Over these images of strangers in the streets or family members eagerly waving in kitchens or yards, the filmmakers layer audio clips from the people who shot the footage, and their relatives. As a result, the film can move with the ebbing tides of family disagreements over what they’re actually looking at. The doc proceeds as the viewing of any home movie does, with relatives jumping in to point out a person or some fact (one man joking that his father was “the worst cameraman in the world,” a woman pointing out a young boy who was later “murdered by the Arabs”), haggling over what means what.

What keeps Israel: A Home Movie from turning into a chaotic mélange of found footage is the frame of history that the filmmakers bolt it to. The early progression is related in generally bright terms, fraught with the danger of a young country on the verge of being born. Even at that distance of years, there are disagreements in the voices. Over shots of Arab workers, one woman reminisces about how easygoing relations were between the Jews and Arabs. Then another notes, “I don’t think it was idyllic as it looks.”

It’s hard not to get a sense of an idyllic paradise from these scenes, shot as they often seemed to be by exhausted and elated refugees from Nazi-haunted Europe. In the mid-1930s, color starts to appear, better to show off all the oranges from the fruit trees that always seem to be in frame. The chorus of voices continues in the run-up to the fighting of 1947 and ’48 that would result in the creation of Israel. Reminders of violence and the cruelty of forgetting are dropped in: “She was killed in a terrorist attack…it’s amazing how people are erased.”

Independence is shown as columns of triumphant soldiers roaring through the streets, Jews streaming into Jerusalem’s Old City to witness the sites they never could before have seen. The calculations of differing perspectives are tackled again over footage of a minaret being topped after the Arabs had fled a neighborhood. One woman insists there was nothing wrong in it, since the minaret isn’t holy anyway, while another worries over the morality. The mood of triumphalism is undercut by the voice noting all the people who “rushed” to occupy the houses Arabs left behind.

The 1950s and ’60s move along as a time of contentment and the insistent march of modernization; taller buildings and cars replace the orchards. Then comes the Six-Day War, shot as it happened by soldiers, including even footage of Moshe Dayan filmed by his son. Vehicles burn in the desert; soldiers beat Egyptian POWs. The trauma builds with the rough awakening of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, announced by an astounding sequence taken by a man relaxing at the beach with his friends and unaware war had broken out, who just happened to catch an Arab MiG fighter being shot down by an Israeli Phantom. They are ready to head back home when a couple of Swedish girls in bikinis come along; briefly, they consider hanging around. Anywhere else, this brief shift in tone would make little sense. But as a home movie, filled with all the overlapping opinions and uncontrollable mood changes, it feels just about right.

Israel: A Home Movie ends in 1977, on images that presage the future in differing ways: the first settlements being built, Likud taking power, and Anwar Sadat coming to Jerusalem to propose peace. It’s a good place to end, even though the narration’s claim that the omnipresent “tribal bonfire” of TV makes home movies feel less relevant is a dubious proposition. In any case, the films collected here make for a vivid tapestry of history, told with competing voices and challenged assumptions, just like any good family story.