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Jewish Journal

History plays a role in Festival selections

by Meredith Price

May 29, 2008 | 2:30 pm

Scene from 'Ben-Gurion Remembers'

Scene from 'Ben-Gurion Remembers'

From the titles alone, one might guess that this year's documentaries at the 23rd Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles have something to do with Israeli history. Indeed, according to Meir Fenigstein, the founder and executive director of the festival, who is a Tel Aviv native, this year's documentaries were chosen to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday in a way that is both interesting and educational.

"This is a special year for us, and we want people to learn something about Israel through one of the most powerful and touching mediums in existence -- film," said Fenigstein, a former rock musician and actor who founded the Israel Film Festival in 1982 while a student at the Boston College of Music.

In "Children of the Sun," best documentary winner at the 2007 Jerusalem Film Festival, director Ran Tal examines the lives of the children on the first kibbutzim in Israel. Born to hopeful, idealistic parents, they have been nicknamed Children of the Sun since they were part of the utopian experiment known as the "Sun of Nations Revolution" in Israel. Destined to become the "new man" -- a hard-working individual free of capitalist vices who preferred the common good and a life of equality to individual aspirations -- these children were educated in a system that replaced the traditional family with a collective one. Raised by nannies with the other kibbutz children, they were separated from their parents in unnatural conditions and taught to sacrifice the "I" in favor of the "we."

"Children of the Sun" includes more than 80 amateur films shot at the kibbutzim between 1930 and 1970 that are woven together and narrated with recordings and conversations between Tal, who was raised on a kibbutz, and his family members and friends.

"I was trying to look at the kibbutz without making a judgment about the bottom line," he said. "It's not about whether the experiment was good or bad. It questions the ideology, but I see it as an aesthetic, emotional film rather than a strictly educational one."

In "I'm a Civil War," taken from the title of one of the Israel Prize Winner Chaim Gouri's books of poetry, director Omri Lior explores the life and work of one of Israel's most celebrated living authors. Born in Tel Aviv in 1923, Gouri left home to live on a kibbutz at the age of 15 and later became a member of the Palmach.

"This film gives a cross-section of Israel's history over the last 60 years through the eyes of Gouri. It starts with his childhood in Tel Aviv and moves into his youth on the kibbutz and then his experiences in the '30s and '40s in the Palmach and later, the Six-Day War," Lior said.

Although Gouri does read several excerpts and discusses the influences on his work, Lior says that the film is not about his poetry. Rather, it's about the life that created that poetry.

"This is a rather nostalgic look at Israel, at the way people saw themselves and how they identified with the state," he said.

Today, the 84-year-old Gouri still feels conflicted by the political and social reality in Israel today. As he stands on the northern border near Mettula with his beloved wife, Gouri says, "Everything has changed and the feeling of hatred and being under siege continues and the land continues to bleed."

"Ben-Gurion Remembers," which was filmed in 1972 by Simon Hesera, is one of the older documentaries at the festival this year. Filmed for Israel's 25th birthday, it includes scenes with the young Ariel Sharon, Abba Eben and Golda Meir.

"It opened in Israel over the Yom Kippur War so no one went to see it," Fenigstein said. "It shows Ben-Gurion as a young man and explores his role in the creation of the Jewish state."

"Rabin-Peres: Everything Is Personal" (2007) is also a look at the history of the state through the personal relationship of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. These two well-known politicians were members of the same party and often shared opinions and views, but their feuds and political battles were legendary. Rabin was a native-born sabra, and Peres represented the new immigrant. Their relationship illuminates many of the decisive moments in Israeli politics since its foundation in 1948.

In "The Mystery of Aris San" and "Waiting for Godik," a piece of Israel's history is explored through the personal lives of two very different men in the entertainment industry.

"The Mystery of Aris San" explores the life of a non-Jewish Greek singer who came to Israel in 1957 and became a superstar. In the 1960s, San was friends with Israel Defense Forces commanders and politicians and had affairs with famous actresses and singers. His songs, "Sigal" and "Boom Pam" were giant hits, and his forbidden love affair with Aliza Azikri was the talk of every gossip column. Suddenly, rumors that he was a spy and involved in violent domestic disputes began to circulate. He left for the United States, where he opened a New York nightclub and befriended stars like Anthony Quinn, Telly Savalas and Harry Belafonte. At the end of his life, he met a mysterious end in Budapest. The film, shot in Israel, Greece, the United States and Hungary, exposes the man behind the artificial wig, huge glasses and white suits and presents an interesting look at the glitzy world of 1960s stardom in Israel.

"Waiting for Godik" is a musical documentary that portrays the rise and fall of legendary producer Giora Godik. Through his personal successes and failures, a bygone historical era in Tel Aviv is also exposed. Godik partially accomplished his dream of bringing the American musical theater to Israel in the 1960s, including "My Fair Lady" and "Fiddler on the Roof." But his crash was as dramatic as his rise to stardom, fleeing Tel Aviv for Germany on the eve of his final premiere. There he sold hot dogs for a living at the central railway in Frankfurt and always believed that he would one day return to his former position as the "King of Israeli Musicals."

The film combines contemporary interviews with his widow, children, and the writers, actors and singers who performed in Tel Aviv and Yaffo, and includes original footage from the musicals Godik produced.

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