Yariv Mozer

Archival Materials in Yariv Mozer’s Films

Interview and edit by Rotem Pesachowitz Paz

Film director and producer, Yariv Mozer, has now been making movies for the better half of two decades. In his films, which chronicle defining moments in the State of Israel’s history, he inevitably must rely heavily on access to archival footage and related content. This, indeed, was very much the case with his two most recent releases, which he’d both directed and produced: Ben-Gurion, Epilogue (2016), and The Red Booklet (2021). In a conversation with our Rotem Pesachovish-Paz, Mozer delves into the methods he’d developed for handling archival footage, including content commissioned for propaganda purposes, and the dilemmas he was gripped with in the course of his work on his two documentaries about Israel’s erstwhile socialist workers’ party, Mapai (that would later become the Israeli Labour party), and the people behind it.   

Could you name a documentary that has influenced you, and which you consider as an example of exceptional use of archival footage?

YM: I’ve been influenced by many of Ken Burns’s projects who is an absolute legend of a documentarist, and whose work as a documentary filmmaker has inspired all of us who have ever set out to make large-scale historical films based on archival footage. I was also very taken with director Vanessa Lapa’s Israeli film, The Decent One (2014), which I cite as a huge influence. I consider Lapa a formidable, top notch documentary filmmaker who pays attention to all the finer details, and that is a truly sublime quality to which I aspire.  

I’m constantly on a learning curve. As you’ve said, I’ve been a director and producer “for the better half of twenty years,” but it doesn’t feel that way to me, because every project feels like a bit of reboot, really; like it might as well be my first film – with all the same worries and uncertainties that come with the territory, but also with a lot of confidence, and both eyes looking ahead to the finish line. Ben-Gurion, Epilogue was my first foray into making a film that was based entirely on archival footage. With that, my aim was to let Ben-Gurion himself take centre stage, and out of that came the drive to find that lost interview which ended up becoming the very foundation of the film.

Your follow-up project to Ben-Gurion, Epilogue was The Red Booklet, about the Israeli Trade Union (‘Histadrut’). Take us through how you ended up on that particular subject.

YM: The Trade Union is a major part of David Ben-Gurion’s life. Whilst I was researching Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, I found out about the Pinchas Lavon Institute for Labour Movement Research and its inhouse archives. That essentially is both the Labour movement and the Histadrut’s official archive and as such, it is also home to the Trade Union’s film collection. As I set out to make The Red Booklet, ahead of the Histadrut’s centennial, it became clear that I was going to have archival footage coming out of my ears, because I knew the Lavon Archive was a treasure trove. Little did I realise how vast that treasure was, which is how the collaboration with the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Israeli Film Archive came about.

The archive, headed by Meir Russo, is a one-man knowledge bank, whose immense contribution, quite frankly, defies words. It is thanks to the archive, its far-reaching film digitising scheme, and the Lavon Institute’s film collection being made available to the general public that I was able to grasp the sheer volume and impact of this treasure trove of footage. The Trade Union’s film department was employing Israel’s greatest directors of the time; most of whom we know next to nothing about and whose names have, for the most part, been forgotten; individuals, whose craft has been left out of Israeli film’s history books. They all worked for the Histadrut, and had all made films that were, for all intents and purposes, propaganda and PR masterpieces. It was a joy to base The Red Booklet on this treasure trove that was produced with the kind support of [Israeli documentary cable network – EE] Hot8.

How does one even approach the task of telling the story of an institution that has been such a major and at times, contentious player in the State of Israel’s history?

YM: in The Red Booklet, I approached the film with the mindset that this was a far more complex story that is nowhere near as black and white as it may seem; and for that, I’ve had my share of backlash, but as far as I’m concerned, a good documentary narrative is always multilayered and multifaceted. When you’re dealing with history, your job is to make sense of it in the context of its time; not with present-day, hindsight vision, because that will surely give you a skewed perspective on history. And if you are able to do that, then what you realise is that really is no such thing as a singular truth, and that nothing’s ever really black and white – what you do have is a complex, nuanced reality, full of contrasts and various perspectives. In that sense, I refused to fall in line with the more contemporary, ‘en vogue’ notions about The Red Booklet, the Labour movement, and the indignity and humiliation that Mizrahi Jews suffered at its hands, because things are way more complicated than that.

Obviously a lot of humiliation, oppression, classist discrimination, and patronising condescension did take place, and some pretty terrible injustices were committed, but one has to examine the context of these injustices. One must also take in the good things that were done, and understand just what the ‘Histradut’ was, and the very meaning of creating this behemoth of an institution in a just-established state or for that matter, well prior to its establishing. The fact is, the Histadrut was set up as a vehicle of sorts to facilitate the establishing of the state before Israel actually came into being, which is something we can’t even begin to wrap our heads around today.

Is there a difference between how one goes about telling an individual’s story versus an institution’s?

YM: First and foremost, for me, every story begins with how I personally relate to it, and where it speaks to me. Both Ben-Gurion, Epilogue and The Red Booklet are deeply tied to my own identity, my family, the past I grew up on, the values I was brought up with at home, my mother and father, and in my case, both my paternal and maternal grandparents. Despite the red booklet’s problematic image, that can be equally positive and negative at times, for me at least, at home, it stood for something important with a great deal of tradition at the heart of it. And that is the place where I set off on this journey that is oh so personal and individual. This journey has stirred such a deep-seated longing, curiosity, and desire in me to dig deeper, to get to know and make sense of why this institution comes with such enormous baggage, and how it could stand for something so positive for some, and so fundamentally negative for others. And so, this journey began with the red booklet and the image it had; and from there on out, I set off to make sense of everything that happened there.

From The Red Book, Directed by Yariv Mozer

What was the imagery that started you out on your Ben-Gurion, Epilogue journey?

I was eager to get to know David Ben-Gurion, up and close and personal. I was tired of hearing people talk about Ben-Gurion and equally, I wasn’t interested in making a film where people were discussing Ben-Gurion. I was interested in hearing him speak and express himself in his own words because until that point, the only thing I’d ever known was his voice from the Declaration of Independence. And with that mindset, and a burning desire, I began my quest to unearth that long-lost interview. That I was actually able to find it is quite extraordinary, really; despite the fact it was essentially lying in wait in the archives for the past 40 years and could easily have been unearthed ages ago; what’s more, the interview’s transcription has long since been available to researchers and scholars, long before I ever came on the scene. When you’re trawling through the archives, what you’re really doing is a deep dive into a world with virtually no boundaries, and you get to make the most extraordinary discoveries along the way. And because in archives, there’s always more to be found than meets the eye, the filmmaker must approach whatever or whomever their subject matter is with the utmost passion, faith and conviction in their way.

The Red Booklet is comprised of interviews and archival footage. At times, the archival footage serves an informative purpose and other times, it is used in a tongue-in-cheek way. Could you elaborate on your diverse use of the footage and tell us how you went about mapping out all the archival content?

YM: I started out with some comprehensive research work and getting to know the Trade Union’s body of work throughout the last one hundred years. I realised that the Histadrut was a blueprint if you will of the ‘state in development,’ and I tried to figure out exactly where all the major tensions were, that I was going to focus on.  I then decided that one of the most pivotal ones was the ethnic tension. I felt like the Histadrut was the source of all the ethnic tensions that persist in the State of Israel and that that, essentially, is the film’s main story. A second angle that I was deeply fascinated with, which I found absolutely riveting was the story of the women in the Labour movement which really was a deeply male-dominated, masculine movement on the one hand, but which also had a huge feminist aspect to it. And so, I knew that those were the two areas I would be sinking my teeth into.

It was clear to me that my materials are all going to be made up of archival footage, and I knew that that this footage came from propaganda films that were made to serve a very particular purpose; and so, sometimes there would be a clash between the historical narrative and what that footage actually stands for – and that is what gave the film its tongue-in-cheek, satirical, and critical edge. I identified the content that portrayed a rose-tinted, nostalgic reality which I was well aware of, and I worked with it and all other informative content, which I then combined with all the texts by historians, scholars, and Trade Union leaders that appear in the film.

What, if any difficulties did you encounter along the way, as you were compiling all the archival footage?

YM: My work process begins with a lot of raw materials – dozens and dozens of hours of raw footage, still images, and sound recordings. In The Red Booklet, I thought I might use recordings in which people were talking about the Histadrut, but after listening to them and reading countless transcripts, it ultimately ended up on the editing suite floor as it just didn’t align with the film’s visual language. I always start out with as much material as I can get my hands on, and then, in the editing suite, I start to whittle it all down. I love the deep-diving process and all the discovery that goes along with it because for me, the archives are a whole world in and of itself.

Any difficulties you might have working with an archive are mostly technical ones. Obviously, a lot of the footage was filmed in a different period, and it does take a while until you’re able to eke out the best possible format out of older footage. This is where I must give another shoutout to Meir Russo and the Jerusalem Cinematheque and Israeli Film Archive’s digitising scheme that has made this process a seamless one that ends up delivering you the very best format you could hope for. I always try and imagine what the footage would look like when I finally get it in its best quality, and it’s always a spectacular end result.

One last question: Out of all historic moments that were never documented, what is one moment you would be most keen to unearth footage of?

YM: I’ve always wished there’d been some footage of the [1948 sunken arms ship – EE] Altalena. I would have liked to have been present at that moment of negotiations between those onshore and the ship, and the dilemmas that the then-leadership was facing. Archival material of that affair is incredibly scarce, and very few people have actually discussed it. As such, it is something I always bring up up as I consider it an open wound in this country; one with far-reaching repercussions, to this day.

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