Jewish Journal


June 12, 2008

Capturing the ‘Real World’ transition for Israeli teens


Filmmaker Maital Guttman

Filmmaker Maital Guttman

In 2004, fed up with overwhelmingly slanted anti-Israeli rhetoric on the Duke University campus, Maital Guttman, then 21, contemplated her International Area Studies senior thesis.

She thought about Amitai Sawicki, her then-19-year-old cousin in Israel preparing to enter the army. Guttman set out to create a documentary film, following six Israeli teens who all opted for Mechina, an Israeli program that allows 1,600 high school seniors up to 18 months of religious or secular preparation before their required entry into the Israel Defense Forces.

The close-knit group of friends embarked on the Reform movement track of Mechina, which was new at the time, but has since become a mainstay of the program's offerings.

Armed with Duke's blessings -- and funding -- the laid-back red-haired student spent May 2004 to June 2005 living in her cousin's compact three-bedroom Jaffa apartment, recording each of the six teen's unique stories. The result is a film that gives an intimate view of how Israeli teens think, humanizing them at a vulnerable time in their lives. In the process, the work also paints a rarely seen, complex picture of what it's like to live in Israel today.

Guttman, who was born in Israel, posed hard-hitting questions to the teens as they spent their days studying, working and performing volunteer service in accordance with the three pillars of Judaism -- based on Torah, avodah (service) and gemilut chasadim (bestowing kindness).

Trailer for the documentary 'Mechina: A Preparation'

Without having taken a formal film class, Guttman and her college roommate Madeline Sackler, a non-Jewish pre-med major, used a video camera and produced, edited and directed a "Real World"-style documentary, opening the film with hip Israeli and American pop music, teens swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, playing guitar, dancing and letting loose. However, their lives are far from worry-free.

While Guttman and her peers in the United States fretted about what careers to pursue after graduation, Vered Rothenberg, then 18, compared her life in Israel to those in America.

"Teenagers in America worry about drunk drivers and kids running around with knives. We think about being blown up on a bus or in a nightclub," she said.

Sawicki, who had been accepted into a three-year air force training course, wondered about the Arab-Israeli relationship and how standing at attention, rifle in hand and donning a soldier's uniform would affect him.

"Of course I don't hate Arabs," Sawicki insisted to his cousin. "That is racism. Ninety percent of Israelis don't hate Arabs."

Benji Weiman Kelman, also 19 at the time and a paramedic in the army, shared his friend's sentiments.

"Even if I were given the order to not help a Palestinian, I would do it anyways," he said.

The film was the first senior thesis at Duke to use a multimedia approach, and provoked a standing ovation from the campus audience of 500 at its first screening. Its success was noted by Duke's school newspaper, and it has since been screened at 60 religious, private and public colleges and high schools across the United States. In programs sponsored by organizations such as StandWithUs and the Association of Reform Zionists, more than 20,000 people have viewed the documentary.

At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Guttman expected to be hassled because the women's liberal arts school has a reputation for anti-Israel sentiment, but she was surprised to receive respectful feedback while engaging in conversation with strangers about their personal connections to the holy land. The organizer of the screening and dialogue session approached Guttman afterward with thankful praise, explaining that Wellesley students never had that type of conversation, because people are afraid to discuss the topic.

Reflecting on past speakers she'd experienced at Duke University, Guttman came to the conclusion that all they were doing was pointing fingers at one another.

"There was no human aspect of the story," she said. Guttman hopes that with her documentary, people will see what Israel is really like, beyond the violent headlines. "I want the film to engage people, especially young people, with their peers in Israel, both Jewish and non-Jewish."

For her next project, Guttman spent 10 months in South Africa working on a film about AIDS in, centralizing it around an HIV-positive woman, Beaty, who Guttman shows not as a victim of AIDS, but as a survivor. While in Africa, Guttman taught filmmaking to students at an arts-based HIV education center producing films for World AIDS Day.

"I like to challenge people and show them a side of Israel not everybody sees," the now full-time filmmaker said. "Everyone brings different things to the table and as a result people get different things out of it."

The "Mechina: A Preparation" DVD release party, featuring a film screening, special sneak peak at her newest film on AIDS in Africa, "The Jonas Women," food and house music will take place on Thursday, June 19, 7-10 p.m. at Cinespace, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.

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