A Simple Image: Films based on Archival Footage

Edited by Ran Tal
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Any and all archives, by the fact of their very existence pose a range of intricate questions which this humble collection cannot presume to tackle in an appropriately comprehensive manner. At the time of writing these words, the Jerusalem Cinematheque is ploughing on, full steam ahead, with its task of collecting, preserving, cataloguing, and making upwards of 66,000 films globally accessible online. That is a staggering number of films, carefully and meticulously compiled with the utmost care over decades. Copies of all films are saved in just about every known format including positives, negatives, 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, and of course video in its many formats. The collection is kept in locked, air-conditioned, and secured basements, under conditions that keep it safe from any potential harm. There, it lies in wait for filmmakers and scholars to take that crucial step, unlock the cave door, set their eyes on this treasure, and take it that much further.

I first began working with archival footage in my 2007 film, Children of the Sun. Whilst we were in production on the film, I found myself going back and forth between dozens of archives, both small and large, where I collected dozens of hours’ worth of amateur footage from multiple sources. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I rather liked archives; the smell of them, and that sense of anticipation that perhaps the next reel might hold a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. One that has been buried for decades, biding its time for the likes of me to finally turn up. I enjoyed the long journeys to and fro, and the many conversations struck up with the archivists who are sitting there, waiting for the odd visitor to walk through the doors, trawl through the archives, and give meaning to what they do which, for all intents and purposes, is utterly fascinating work that is scarcely known, or even visible.

Running an archive and making films based on archival footage both present a slew of dilemmas to do with preserving, cataloguing, content accessibility, and so on. Each dilemma, of course, comes with its own fascinating set of financial, political, and professional aspects. In this list, I aim to focus primarily on films that don’t so much deal directly with the archive’s functions but rather make creative, and aesthetic use of old films and imagery to create a different kind of filmmaking, based on archival footage; a type of cinema that seeks to undermine the source and flesh out an additional narrative from all the old footage.

What does it mean to take footage shot by certain individuals, at a particular time, and with specific intentions – and to then use it in another film, in a totally different period, and with altogether different motivations? How does documentary filmmaking breathe new meaning into old imagery? How do we, as directors, grapple with our ability to alter the meaning of an image and through it, tell another story; one that exceeds / contradicts / expands on the original cinematographer’s vision? What are the dangers and equally, the opportunities that emerge in film’s ability to place a ‘second hand image’ in a different context that could transform, refresh, and reinvigorate the old footage (if all goes well) or alternatively, take it out of context and create untruthful connections and associations (a less favourable scenario, to say the least.)

Countless directors, to date, have delved into archives and worked with archival footage. The majority of films will likely use footage from the past in a casual, offhand manner – a way of illustrating “the real thing”, if you will. Seldom will they approach the image as a living, breathing entity that must be observed at length, dusted off, and roused awake to a new lease of life. In the wonderfully described words of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflection on Photography, “the photograph, itself, is not ‘alive’ at all (I do not believe in ‘living’ images), but it is enough to breathe life into me – which inspires all adventure.”)

Georges Didi-Huberman who grappled, at length, with a range of ethical questions that arise when using archival images, wrote in his momentous book, Images in Spite of All, “To imagine, in spite of it all, [is] something that warrants strict ethics of the image on our part: neither the invisible par excellence (the aesthetician’s laziness), nor an icon of the horror (the believer’s laziness), nor the simple document (the scientist’s laziness). A simple image: unsatisfactory yet essential. Inaccurate yet authentic. Authentic; in spite of its truth, too, being paradoxical, of course. I would say that the image here is the eye of history: its unwavering mission to turn things visible.”

I have chosen a number of local films that have made creative use of archival footage. Those that take on the invisible, the horror, and the simple document: Haim Gouri, Jacques Ehrlich, and David Bergman’s trilogy The 81st Blow (1974), The Last Sea (1979), and Flames in the Ashes (1985); A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski, 2010); The Women Pioneers (Michal Aviad, 2013); Censored Voices (Mor Loushy, 2015); Ben-Gurion, Epilogue (Yariv Mozer and Yael Perlov, 2016); Death in the Terminal (Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudri, 2016); The Death of Cinema and my Father Too (Dani Rosenberg, 2020); Belated Measures (Nir Evron, 2020), and my own Children of The Sun (2007). Each of these films tackles archival footage from a different aesthetic approach whilst employing a fair bit of movie manipulation – all of which comes together to deliver a truly fascinating end result.

The translation subtitles were produced thanks to the generous donation of the Azrieli Foundation.

Movie clips

The Women Pioneers

From her early days as a filmmaker, Michal Aviad has focused on mapping out Israeli life in its entirety, internal contradictions and all, from a female point of view. Whether the style is direct cinema (Jenny and Jenny, 1997), diary form (For my Children, 2002), or a travel movie (Ever Shot Anyone?, 1995), the discussion remains anchored between the private and the historical and is ever underscored with a sense of urgency and mission. In each movie, Aviad opts for a different style of filmmaking through which she unfolds the narrative. In her glorious 2013 film, The Women Pioneers, Aviad travels roughly one hundred years into the past. Her protagonists are a group of women who immigrated to Palestine at the turn of the 20th century – women who left behind families, their language and culture, in order to build the Promised Land with their bare hands.

Aviad’s action here is twofold – giving the women who had been left behind and essentially, excised from the canonical narrative their presence back (“they didn’t have any streets named after them,” she observes) – and also presenting an alternative to the primary, and predominantly masculine narrative. To dig deep, she opts to focus on five striking and terrifically articulate young women who, at the time, were living in Kibbutz Ein Harod.

And in order to allow us, the viewers, a glimpse into their minds and inner selves, Aviad employs two primary tools: journals and letters, and archival footage.

The more intimate footage is a doorway into the women pioneers’ inner world: they dream of establishing a revolutionary society in Palestine; one that would allow women to be key partners in the nationwide socialist revolution, and to erect this novel eutopia. Aviad weaves these personal, heartrending texts together with archival footage shot at the time by local Jewish institutions as part of their “branding” campaign for the Zionist revolution.

The inner tension created by the pairing of the writers’ intimate voices with imagery that served an altogether different purpose produces a complex and layered cinematic text. The combination of the voices and old footage (the texts are read out by actresses of corresponding ages to the protagonists’) allows one to delve deep into the reality of local life in the throes of a Jewish socialist revolution, only this time from the ground up – the ones who narrate the course of events are the women, aided by Aviad. The narrative emerges from the individual’s own private sphere as opposed to the historian’s authoritative voice. The narrating voices that we hear capture both the hope and disillusionment, the passion and heartbreak but mostly, the sheer extent of the sacrifice asked of these women. The inner reckoning, too, is there all throughout; echoing intimately, painfully, and ever-consistently.

The film opens with footage with a diary excerpt: “Ein Harod, a typically boiling hot Israeli day. A harvested field of barley. My nerves are fraught to the extreme, and one feels as though there is only so much more of this that one can take.” It ends 50 minutes later with another diary excerpt: “Independence, femininity. The fight for independence has compromised femininity. Surely this must be the case, there can be no doubt about it. But I certainly did not see it that way. For me, this was a fight for my own self, where femininity and independence merge to become one. Others may very well consider this a conflict, a contradiction, a wavering. Perhaps. For me, a fulfilment of one’s femininity, of motherhood, was essential if one were to experience independence. And so it came to pass, even at the cost of humiliation. For me, it was worth my while.”


The Women Pioneers – watch full movie

Belated Measures

Unlike the majority of creators in this collection, Nir Evron describes himself as a video artist and photographer. His works take place in those spaces between the physicality of the documented materials and the actual meaning of the documentation, itself. Evron has a keen interest in the physical substance through which he endeavours to extract meaning about the reality which he documents. Belated Measures is comprised of rare footage that was randomly unearthed in the Lehi [Jewish resistance organisation in 1940s Palestine] Museum archive. As is usually the case with these things, Evron had learnt, completely by chance, about the existence of 16mm footage in the archives that was kept in rusting metal boxes, with no one having a clue as to what they might contain. With his curiosity now piqued, Evron approached the archives and obtained permission to convert the disintegrating footage to video files.

What he uncovered next was utterly fascinating: scenes featuring a reconstruction of a bank robbery on Tel Aviv’s Allenby High St., battles raging outside Jerusalem, and intimate day-to-day scenes from the lives of young Lehi resistance fighters. The footage is very much amateur, and the young men are shot from up close – which makes it glaringly obvious that the cinematographer must be part of the group. Evron approaches these materials from a rather unconventional angle: nowhere does he attempt to create a traditional, “well-crafted” narrative, nor get to the bottom of exactly where those resistance fighters were filmed, or even who they were. Granted, he does begin with an introduction into the resistance and the way that he came upon the footage although soon enough, he pivots right to his comfort zone – that is, studying the actual physical materials. He elaborates on the on the condition of the disintegrating film rolls, observes the inaccurate camera exposures, and draws viewers’ attention to the lenses with which the film had been shot and exposed. At the heart of Evron’s discussion is materiality, itself, and its degradation over the course of 70 years’ worth of humidity and rust. The very soul and essence of the raw materials, themselves. His interest lies in in the tracks – and not so much those who had left them.

The point of view is forensic, borderline detective even, but not with the aim of uncovering the identity of those who had made those marks – quite the opposite. The main interest is in the marks, themselves. History is written by imagery, even when the latter is inexplicable. We insist, in an almost Pavlovian manner, on arranging them into a narrative – because that is how we have come to consume our history. Evron, however, proposes an alternative prism from which we might consider historical imagery. His action expands one’s point of view and in doing so, allows all the seams, cracks, and stains to be seen and heard. Where film looks at any flaws and sees a problem that needs treating and restoration, Evron sees (and seizes) an opportunity. Which is nothing short of riveting.

A Film Unfinished

The following bit of voiceover narration kicks off director Yael Hersonki’s extraordinary film: “This is the story of an unfinished film, of what was designated propaganda material commissioned by the Third Reich; the same footage-loving empire that set about documenting its own evilness so passionately and so methodically, unlike any other nation ever had before… in the years after the war, when filmmakers and museums set out to tell the story of the unthinkable, to show against all odds what ‘really happened there,’ those scenes from that same commissioned Nazi film became concrete evidence. The fact that behind these scenes was manipulative filmmaking has long been forgotten and in the meantime, these black and white images have become enshrined as historical truth. All that remains of the propaganda frenzy are the images themselves, covering layers of reality.”

A Film Unfinished is made up entirely of footage from that same film that was never completed which was shot at the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis’ propaganda film crews. The reason why the film was subsequently shelved remain unclear, however despite having never been shown as a singular work, the scenes shot by the Germans have since ended up in many Holocaust films and used as an authentic portrayal of ghetto life. Hersonski ‘zooms out’ and away from all the Nazi imagery and with a range of film ‘tricks of the trade’, contextualises every last frame. The cinematic action taken here by her endows the old footage with new meaning, thereby restoring much of the power it has lost over decades of being put to the most senseless, banal use.

These images are a complicated thing, in and of itself. Beyond any complexity of my own argument in the film, the image itself here is the thing that is complex. And what’s complex about the image is that it always contains some form of claim to objectivity, seeing as how you have a machine that’s doing the documenting, as opposed to a painter or sculptor. It’s a camera registering light onto matter. And at the same time, fundamentally, that same camera is human-operated. You have two points of view that exist in one image: what the cinematographer saw, and what the camera saw. To me, it seems that the gap between the two is what makes the image that much more open [to interpretation] than pretty much any other document.” (Yael Hersonki, Theory and Criticism (40), Summer 2012).

In order to give voice to the image, or to reveal the host of agendas behind its creation, Hersonski uses just about every technique in the ‘Holocaust film book’: filming the witnesses watching the Nazi films; reading out excerpts from the diary of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jewish Council (Judenrat), in which he describes in great detail both the film’s production and the way in which he was forced to take part in it; quoting key passages from the Ringelblum Archive (aka ‘Oyneg Shabbos’) which also discusses the film’s production; recreating the interrogation of one of the cinematographers who had taken part in the shooting (using actors); slowing down the shots, using different picture quality versions of them, and at times freezing the image to highlight a particular point. The result is positively breath-taking and thought provoking, leaving one with endless questions in its aftermath.

The Death of Cinema and my Father Too

Dani Rosenberg’s film is the only “narrative fiction” title in this collection. The Death of Cinema sets out to tell a supposedly simple story about a dying father, and a son looking to stop time. And the way that he goes about doing so is by making a film, starring his father. Rosenberg’s intricate filmmaking style turns this all-too familiar tale of fathers and sons into something thoroughly surprising, moving, and emotional on the one hand – whilst at the same time, eliciting an in-depth discussion of the meaning of film.

When you break down and recap the sheer volume of footage Rosenberg had used to his put his film together, it’s hard to believe the end result works so precisely and oh-so harmoniously. The film sustains a multitude of cinematic circles that converge and coalesce, as if pre-planned many years in advance, only to end up interwoven. Rosenberg, along with editor Nili Feller created together a hybridised-reflexive film that commands the utmost attention and responsibility from its viewers if they are to give meaning to their viewing experience – that is, to construct the narrative by themselves; a narrative comprised of a sequence of scenes, each of which is made up of different film footage of various formats. A wondrous labyrinth that demands of us, the viewers, to go into constant deciphering mode.

And whilst one could describe the many types of footage that comprise the film, it would be that much simpler to just go ahead and break down one scene. The sequence begins with a scene from the film within the film – an angry, painful conversation between the father (Marek Rozenbaum) and the son, who is also the film director (Roni Kuban). The scene also features Ina Rosenberg, creator Dani Rosenberg’s real-life mother as the mother of Roni Kuban’s character. The camera angle is identical to a similar (albeit of a documentary style) scene featuring Rosenberg’s own father at the start of the film. From thereon, the scene cuts to a nocturnal crawl about Tel Aviv – part documentary, and part taken from the film about the film. The sequence ends with footage from an amateur film Dani Rosenberg had made in high school in which an assassin kills his father, Natan Rosenberg. In the student film, Natan is shown keeling over on the pavement, as per the genre’s finest cliches. The onscreen death as a precursor to the physical one.

“People go to the cinema to watch actors, not your dad… all your suggestions are juvenile,” says the actor who plays the director’s father. “The days are slipping by; don’t you get that? Our days our slipping by,” replies the actor who plays Dani Rosenberg, the director.

That is all that remains.

Ben-Gurion, Epilogue

The origin story of Yariv Mozer and Yael Perlov’s Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, dates back to an altogether different film. In 1969, Perlov directed the film 42:6 – Ben Gurion, a docudrama that focused on formative chapters in David Ben Gurion’s life. That film was a combination of scripted scenes and archival footage, both of which were interwoven with then-contemporary footage of Ben Gurion at his home in kibbutz Sdeh Boker [in the southern Negev region.] The research done for David Perlov’s film was based on a 1968 interview with Ben Gurion on his 82nd birthday, shortly after the death of his wife, Paula, and five years before his own passing. The young interviewer was one Dr. Clinton Bailey who had recently moved to Israel from the US where he befriended the Ben-Gurions and later, even settled in Sde Boker. That major interview was subsequently consigned to the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive where it lay unused and forgotten for decades. Over time, the sound reels were lost, rendering the visuals all but unusable. Director Yariv Mozer and editor, Yael Perlov, came across this lost interview whilst researching another project. Intrigued by the mystery, thus begun a quest for the sound reels. The search finally bore fruit after Mozer and Perlov had managed to track down Malcolm Stuart who had recorded the interview. Initially, Stuart was minded to hold onto the recordings but eventually came around and agreed to donate them to the Ben-Gurion Archive at Ben-Gurion University. At last, after all these years, it would be possible to restore this historical film and make out what Ben-Gurion was saying. And he certainly had a lot to say, showing rare candour – about his own personal history, his feelings following the death of his wife (“Broken? Whyever should I be broken… it’s not as if I can alter the situation, can I?”), about the meaning of leadership (“a leader incapable of taking unpopular decisions is dangerous”), about the occupation (“given a choice between peace and all the territories we’d conquered last year, I would choose peace”), and about Israel’s survival prospects (“I should certainly hope so.”)

As said, the film is mainly based on that lost interview, alongside several rare bits of footage from various other sources, and some still images. The limited amount of footage allows Mozer and Perlov to observe just about every nuance there is to the elderly leader: how he dresses, his gestures whilst speaking, and the way that his thoughts give rise to a string of sentences and ideas. The storyline is a ‘disorganised’ narrative thread that ends up revealing so much more than any traditional structure would.

The punch that Ben-Gurion, Epilogue packs comes from the footage, the clever editing, and the time that we, the viewers, invest towards watching the end result. Our own present day is virtually touched by this historical figure peering at us and addressing us, moments before taking his own final curtain call. The impact is quite extraordinary, leaving us able to do little else but sit down and watch, listen, and think. Ben-Gurion realises that time is running out, which is why one has a duty to make the most of it. In one of the film’s most touching moments, he chastises Bailey for asking to wrap up their session 10 minutes ahead of the time they’d arranged, because what had been agreed upon must be adhered to.

Censored Voices

Like many of the finest films based on archival footage, director Mor Loushy’s film, Censored Voices, too features a fascinating backstory behind the footage’s journey, from its initial shooting to eventually ending up in Loushy’s film. In 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, Author Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira, both young kibbutz members at the time, could not help but recognise a profound dissonance between their own feelings about the war and the widespread euphoria that seemed to have swept through the whole of Israel, taking on many forms such as the glorification of the IDF and the release of countless albums commemorating the vast scope of Israel’s victory and the conquering of the whole West Bank region.

The conversations Oz and Shapira had recorded captured an altogether different mood. They were intimate, tortured, and riddled with doubt, anxiety, remorse, guilt, and criticism. Shapira’s subsequent book, The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War, based on those very conversations, roused a great deal of interest. It appeared in multiple editions (with upwards of 150,000 copies printed over the years), and was translated to Yiddish, English, French, Spanish, Swedish, and Arabic. The discourse surrounding it was complex and multi-layered, drawing reverence and harsh criticism in equal measure from both sides of the political spectrum.

The reels spent years collecting dust in Avraham Shapira’s backroom. In fact, no one had played or listened to them since 1967. Loushy instantly recognised their huge potential. She acquired the rights, had the reels digitised, and after she had finished transcribing them, it officially dawned on her – this was a veritable treasure trove. Both the audio and visuals in Censored Voices are utterly gripping and moving, with many parts having been censored and left out of Shapira’s original book.

The film opens with Amos Oz slowly limping his way into the frame before sitting down to listen to the sound of his own voice as it was recorded just 10 days after the Six-Day War had finished: “there are some folks who, out of a shared idea, came to the conclusion that it would make sense to put together an unorthodox booklet that would aim to articulate authentically the feelings of those who had come back from the war, and would try to account for the reason behind the fact we all seem to have come across – that people have not returned happy from this war. There is this hanging sense of burden which newspaper journalists will not acknowledge. We don’t ask folks to tell us what they got up to in the war, we want them to share what they’ve been through. Not what they’ve done but rather, how they felt. We decided to hang out in a couple of kibbutzim, strike up some conversations with people. Try and explain it to each other and hopefully, figure out what exactly happened to us after this war. Perhaps we’ll manage to explain both to ourselves and to others exactly what it is that’s hurting us right here and right now, in these grande times. Granted, we might not be doing the greatest service to that thing otherwise known as national morale, but we would certainly be doing a service, however small, to the truth.”

Thus began the intricate job of editing and building a narrative out of the multitude of voices recorded over dozens of hours, alongside in-depth and globally comprehensive research in an effort to trace any and all wartime footage and visuals. Next up was crafting the scenes and sequences and finally, a whole film made up entirely of the content of those conversations, combined with archival news reports of the war. Loushy would occasionally include the odd shot of the combat soldiers as elderly men, listening in silence to their voices as they were recorded all those decades ago. The result is striking, thought provoking, and deeply moving.

Like many other archive films, Censored Voices also encompasses that tremendous tension between the way that the past was initially portrayed, and what we have since learnt really happened. The images of elderly combat soldiers listening to their younger 1967 selves are riveting. We watch them as they listen, fully cognisant – as they are – of the true course of history. This unconscionable gap is what gives the film its profound emotional and historical depth. The soundtrack reveals these young soldiers’ thoughts through Loushy’s choice of how to deliver them to us – as a direct extension of Oz’s own text, i.e. not so much what we did but how we felt. The visual meanwhile shows news archive footage which, by nature, observes the war from the outside. These contrasting points of view that breed discord between the soundtrack and visuals, also add an extra layer of nuance to this glorious film.

The clever editing that pulls all those voices from the ground up allows every viewer to slip into listening mode, absorbing voices from the past whilst contemplating the path(s) that Zionist history has since followed in the subsequent decades since that war. It feels an awful lot like watching a car collision in slow motion: you know exactly what’s going to happen at the end of the shot, that moment of impact between vehicle and reality and yet, it’s impossible to look away.

Death in the Terminal

Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudri’s film revisits the terrorist attack at the Beersheba Central Bus Station [in the south of Israel] and the subsequent horrifying lynching of Haftom Zarhum by a group of bystanders who had mistaken him for the shooter. The film’s greatest strength lies in the creators’ deeply unsettling use of CCTV footage. In this day and age, we have both private and government recording equipment capturing our every move in the public sphere. From robberies and brawls to terrorist attacks – we have now got used to having visual documentation of just about every violent incident taking place in a public context which, of course, is instantly featured in the evening’s news editions and enshrined as fact. Footage of the Beersheba lynching was no different and was also front and centre of all Israeli news programmes. Where Death in the Terminal really packs a punch, though, is in the decision to take the footage, most of which was made public in real time, and re-edit it. Shemesh and Sudri managed to combine the chilling CCTV footage with testimonials from witnesses to the harrowing incident, with the result being a film that is part documentary, part reconstruction.

CCTV cameras are usually installed at the top of whatever space it is they’re monitoring. With their wide lenses and silent nature, devoid of any and all soundtrack, the cameras almost become impartial witnesses, if you will, to the events unfolding before them. Shemesh and Sudri added sound to the visuals, in addition to having edited the shots – sometimes speeding them up and other times, slowing them down and zooming in to highlight certain elements in the frame. This manipulating of the footage and testimonials creates a predetermined narrative whereby fate thrusts all those involved into that critical moment where they must decide how to react to the violence being inflicted on the injured man lying on the ground. The outcome, as said, is grim. According to Shemesh and Sudri, the masses are out of control, and at the first sign of fear and hysteria, they are capable of just about anything. Including kicking an injured man’s head in and beating him senseless to a bleeding pulp.

The use of CCTV footage, ‘basic’ interviews, and superb sound work has enabled the film to retell the story in a completely novel way and in doing so, also allowed the characters to recall how they came to be at the scene in the first place and how they reacted. “I couldn’t bring myself to shout out that that wasn’t the terrorist,” an Arab falafel stand employee who had captured the attack on his mobile phone camera explains in hindsight; “If I had been Jewish, I would have done,” he adds. As it turns out, he was the only one present who actually realised that the young Eritrean man in his slippers was not, in fact, the terrorist. Watching Death in the Terminal puts the viewer in the hotseat as they are forced to ask themselves how they would react in a moment of crippling fear and overwhelming rage.

Children of the Sun

Children of the Sun is a film I directed back in 2007 about a family living in a kibbutz, which is why I’ll be writing about it somewhat differently and more personally. I first began contemplating making the film about the same time my children were born in Tel Aviv, when it then dawned on me that their childhood will be the furthest possible thing from mine. I grew up in a kibbutz during the 1960s and ‘70s; a kibbutz which, by then, had long since distanced itself from the radical, avantgarde days of the 1920s when my parents were growing up. This was the main reason behind my decision to set Children of the Sun in the time period between the 1920s and 1980s.

The exhaustive research I had done revealed that discourse about the kibbutz over the years was a type of mirror image of Israeli society: starting out as reverent and propaganda-centric in the early days, back when the kibbutz was a primary instrument in the glorification of the Zionist enterprise and over time, becoming a complete and utter caricature of its former self and wholly voided of any and all historical or ideological context by the turn of the 21st century when the transition was completed from a collectivist, closed off and ideologically recruited ‘hive’ into a society that worships the individual, consumption, and globalisation.

Nestling into this gap is Children of the Sun, the key to which is the family frame: a contained, intimate frame that explores the area where kibbutz members went that extra mile, which other likeminded movements would not, in their efforts to create the ideal communal life – communal education. Relocating all those tricky relationships from the traditional family unit to an extended family context became the heart and centre of the film. I believed that through this age-old conflict between parents and children, I would be able to explore a fundamental psychological and emotional element through which one could make sense of far greater processes at play from the ground up. It seemed to me that this would be a way of explaining a range of trends, shifts, and phenomena.

The film is comprised of two main elements: audio interviews I’d recorded (sound only) with my family and people who were there during my childhood years; an extended family of sorts, if you will – and a host of other characters I’d crossed paths with along the way. My plan was to use amateur video footage only; the kind shot by kibbutz members that captured community life – family films, in their collective sense. The narrative essentially chronicles a whole life, from birth to old age. It’s the editing here that is the fascinating part. How to put together a scene out of multiple voices and otherwise unrelated bits of film footage; deciding on the appropriate soundtrack for all the silent footage I found in the archives and figuring out the narrative thread that would guide this massive collage from start to finish – a faceless collage with no straightforward protagonists, in stark contrast to what we had grown accustomed to in traditional documentary filmmaking.

Both I and my super talented editor, Ron Goldman, were interested in exploring the relationship between picture and sound, and the dynamic between memory, as recalled, and the old images. The film takes place in a nonphysical setting; it exists in the tension between the different types of memory. A patchwork world riddled with black spots and memory fragments. It is thus for the audience to take on the task of deconstructing and putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

Working on Children of the Sun was a fascinating experience. At first, we weren’t exactly sure where this experiment we’d conducted in the editing suite would take us. The result is a 70min film, made up of over 90 scenes shot in various kibbutzim over different periods. Upwards of 30 speakers can be heard in the soundtrack, as well as old songs, bits of radio programmes – and Avi Belleli’s glorious music.


Children of the Sun – watch full movie

The 81st Blow (1974), The Last Sea (1979), and Flames in the Ashes (1985)

In the early seventies, Haim Gouri, Jacques Ehrlich, and David Bergman embarked on a journey together whose end result was an epic trilogy about the Holocaust. The trio, with the support of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, were able to amass hundreds of hours’ worth of footage, and thousands of still images. This mammoth research project ended up becoming three feature-length films, made over a 13-year period: The 81st Blow, which chronicles Jewish life from the Nazis’ rise to power to the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto; The Last Sea, that begins right after the war and features the liberation of the camps and the survivors’ journey to Palestine – their trials and tribulations across a decimated Europe, their illegal migration to British Mandatory Palestine and the Cyprus internment camps; and Flames in Ashes (which, although third in the trilogy, is actually the middle one, chronologically) which focused on Jewish resistance in Europe during World War II, whilst also taking on a critical approach to the myth of Jews walking to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter.

In all three films, the fundamental narrative structure is chronological. The three creators’ main narrative decision was not to show the speakers’ faces, therefore only their voices are heard. The testimonials were taken from the recordings of Adolf Eichmann’s trial. The presiding notion behind the editing was to arrange the footage and still images in a way that created a world that would pull us into the characters as close as possible. As said, the characters – who are only ever heard, pop up every now and then, either with a personal recollection or some hindsight commentary on an experience they’d had in real-time. The creators were highly cognisant of the fact that the vast majority of footage was shot by the Germans and as such, they do make a point of stating that in the film. What is interesting is the way that they integrate the footage into the sequence of events and whether the German point of view is still present, or has it been subsumed by the film, thereby becoming the creators’ POV? A significant number of shots from part one of the trilogy (The 81st Blow) are taken from the same footage which Yael Hersonski would later base her film, A Film Unfinished, on.

It really was fascinating to watch the films which, it pains me to say, kind of went forgotten over the years. Online information about the production of the trilogy is scarce and so, with that in mind, I made my way to kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, the home of Jacqo (Jacques) Ehrlich – the sole surviving witness out of the three creators. Despite being well in his nineties, Jacqo answers the door all sprightly and leads me to his to his studio where, up until recently, he would regularly paint. “I’ve always painted” he told me whilst showing me one painting after the other, “until film came along and took out painting. And when film went away, painting made its comeback. Now, unfortunately, my health won’t let me paint anymore.”

Read full interview with Jacques Ehrlich

The 81st Blow – Watch full movie

The Last Sea – Watch full movie

Flames in the Ashes – Watch full movie

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