Before becoming Israelis, the nations’s soon-to-be-citizens were Polish, or Romanian, or refugees from somewhere else in war-torn Europe, settling in what was then known as Palestine. Director Eliav Lilti and producer Arik Bernstein start their documentary Israel: A Home Movie with these immigrants, who arrived during what’s known as “The Fifth Aliyah,” when hundreds of thousands of Jews left Europe ahead of the Nazis and found their way to the Middle East. Israel: A Home Movie was compiled by Lilti and Bernstein from film shot by those Jews in the early 1930s to the late 1970s, and is narrated by the ones who did the shooting. The subjects talk about what it was like to start over in a strange new place, populated by strange new people, and they describe how they gradually came to feel a sense of pride and ownership in their new land. “It was a lovely childhood,” one says about growing up first in Europe, then Palestine. “Before what happened… happened.”
“What happened” initially refers to the spread of Nazi persecution, though Israel: A Home Movie also gets into the seeds of the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs, and is largely defined by that conflict. Between all the scenes of weddings and vacations—the kinds of events that ordinary citizens were likely to film and keep—there’s footage of army training exercises and independence parades, and of the rubble following terrorist bombs and military combat. Over and over, the voices in Israel: A Home Movie lament how bad the situation has gotten, and how the relationship between the country’s various residents used to be congenial, or at least non-violent. But the more the new arrivals tried to remake Israel in the image of Europe, the more resistance they met. And it wasn’t just Jews vs. Arabs; the relatively well-off Israelis who settled in the 1930s didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the impoverished Holocaust survivors who arrived later.
The approach Lilti and Bernstein take with Israel: A Home Movie has its limitations. The interview subjects’ voices are identified by onscreen titles, but because the subjects themselves aren’t seen on-camera (at least not in the present-day), it’s hard to keep track of recurring storytellers. And while the breadth of footage is remarkable—with a lot more scenes of the region’s various wars than viewers might expect, including one stunning clip of a jet fighter crashing into the ocean during a beach party—the narration doesn’t always directly describe what’s onscreen, so after a while the shots of tanks, POWs, and happy people in fancy clothes start to bleed together. Periodically, the filmmakers pop a big number over the picture, to identify the year the footage was shot, but anyone looking to Israel: A Home Movie for a comprehensive history lesson will come away ill-informed. (The movie really works best as a ground-level companion piece to 2012’s excellent documentary The Gatekeepers.)
On the other hand, the blending of voices and images into one indistinguishable meta-narrative suits the idea that the Israeli story is one story, with shared themes and motifs from citizen to citizen. There are striking moments throughout Israel: A Home Movie where the pictures and anecdotes become more personal: When one man recounts his thriving business renting pornographic films to his neighbors in the early 1970s, for example; or when one woman looks at film of herself as a teenager and says, surprised, “I have boobs! Everyone said I was flat-chested.” The people in these films weren’t actors, and didn’t know they’d be captured for posterity, and in some cases, it’s almost painful to see how youthful and beautiful they look, while their older selves describe the hardships they went through and the exhaustion they feel now.
That’s especially true whenever Lilti and Bernstein get back to the tension between Jews and Arabs. The interviewees are unapologetically Zionist, and talk with pride about “liberating” new territories for Israel, over footage of their younger selves adventuring in these new lands like Wild West pioneers. But while Lilti and Bernstein seem more neutral toward the choices Israel’s founders made, they don’t shy away from showing Palestinians being herded around at gunpoint while the narrators insist that the Israeli treatment of their neighbors wan’t that rough, or showing Muslim mosques being demolished while a voice on the soundtrack explains how an “expert” rabbi once told her these buildings weren’t holy. There’s a matter-of-factness to Israel: A Home Movie that’s disquieting, as it shows the joy and determination of a nation in the making, and the dismayed faces of those elbowed aside.