Modi Bar-On, from Tangled Roots, Episode 3

Interview by Rotem Pesachovish Paz

Anat Zeltzer is a filmmaker, director, producer, and lecturer at various Israeli film and art schools across the country. At the heart of this interview is her use of archival footage in her work with the late Modi Bar-On, her creative collaborator of three decades.

Anat, you and Modi spent a great deal of time delving into the story of this place [Israel], and also used lots of archival footage. Modi studied theatre and started out as a standup comedian – of the rather subversive kind, one might add – on top of directing plays, writing sketches for [classic comedy satire show] The Cameric Five (‘ha-hamishia hakamerit’), and later becoming the face of the Champions’ League TV broadcast studio. But above all else, Modi was very much a Renaissance man who, along with you, created all these documentary programmes that brought to the screen a breadth of historical stories in a way that is truly second to none. How did it all start? In fact, when did you and Modi meet, and when did you start collaborating professionally?

AZ: I studied to become a history teacher at Tel Aviv’s Kibbutzim College, then went to New York with my partner for nearly five years. There, I got a degree in Documentary Television which is a lot like the [academic] programme I currently run; a sort of theory and practice hybrid degree. Anyway, it’s not as if it made me this great authority on film, let alone filmmaking. It was about as entry level as it gets, but I did have some very good teachers who taught me documentary-geared thinking.

After finishing my degree in 1990, we moved back to Israel, and I took a job as a television researcher. I was doing this major research project about the [late 19th century Jewish Zionist] Bilu movement. That was actually my first ever research gig that brought together my love of history and my love of this… new thing, you know, which I still didn’t really have a solid grasp of. I found myself spending loads of time in archives, experiencing first-hand all the nitty gritty of the job and its demands – and I always just kept going and going. I worked a lot. [Israel’s first commercial broadcaster] Channel 2 launched in 1993; it was literally taking its first steps and they handed me all this responsibility pretty early on. I did a bunch of these massive broadcasts that were sort of a cross between what The Department of Education wanted and what was actually needed, and in between those I also did a couple of big specials about film.

Then at one point, they came up to me and said they wanted to do this panel show for young people, Hakol Patuach (‘it’s all possible’), and I came up with this concept which, to this day, I’m still in love with and that is essentially choosing a topic and breaking it down to the finest detail. And there, I had to find the show a host.

And how did you find Modi?

AZ: Now this is 1995, yeah? And if you look around then the most popular TV presenters of the day where folks like Avri Gilad, Erez Tal, and Merav Michaeli [now leader of Israel’s Labour party] – they were all pretty much the top ticket when it came to hot and happening young TV presenters. And I said, yeah this isn’t the direction we’re going in, so I started thinking – well then who do we go with? At the time, Modi was writing for the Tel Aviv Times (‘zman tel aviv’) which was [Israeli daily paper] Maariv’s local newspaper in Tel Aviv. Journalism was having this massive boom at the time. And his writing, there was something invigorating about it. It was as if it sparked off the page right at me even then, so I started looking into him.

I watched an audition Modi had done for this big literature series and saw this very hot man, and I just went, right! This is a perfect fit. I wasn’t familiar with his work in stand-up because I was living abroad at the time. But I did have this group of young people who were my sounding board and they told me I was right about him. And despite the fact that his agent, who would later become his personal manager, requested that there not be an audition – I insisted that we do have one, never mind that I’d essentially already made up my mind at that point. And off we went.

Off you went indeed; on a 30-year journey together that includes a catalgoue of truly important works. Like you said, it started out in 1995 with Hakol Patuach. Then in 1997, you both created It’s All People (‘hakol anashim’). In 2003 you co-wrote In the Jewish State (‘BeMdinat Ha-Yehudim’). In 2007, you started your own production company, Modi and Anat Inc., and created together with Gavriel Bibliowicz The Lion Roared Twice, A Duck’s Journey, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Later, you created the series The Kibbutz, Route 90, and Tangled Roots about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as well as 19 instalments in [documentary cabler] Channel 8’s Culture Heroes series. What was it about your connection that just worked so well?

AZ: I think each of us was just very good at doing their bit. I created the line-up, essentially how I thought the storyline should look, with the help of our researchers and some heavy-duty research work. Then, I would hand over the reins to Modi whose job it was to take the bit I brought and add his own bit. A dialogue of sorts, if you will, so that if I said for instance, ‘lets go in through the front door’ – he would go, ‘no, we’re going in through the window and coming out to the right, not left, like you wanted.’ And that’s the sort of thing we would argue about.

As it turns out, I’m a pretty damn good researcher – fine, maybe not an amazing one but a good researcher still – and I reckon I’m also a good editor who knows the right story to tell. Then you had Modi, who brought in all the drama to the story, the script essentially. He was a gifted screenwriter, which is why it worked so brilliantly. Because what we basically had here was a mix of two people, each of whom being very good at what they do. So in that sense, it’s a pretty unbeatable combo.

Also, don’t forget that it was basically thanks to Modi that in It’s all People, and when you think about it also in It’s all Possible, we started this type of genre where he always got to have a monologue. Meaning all his opening and closing monologues, that was something he brought into all of our projects. And over the years, most disagreements were about the text, because I became that much harsher and more political. But the arguments weren’t about what to say but more about how to say it.

Modi came quite a long way from the offbeat fringes to the suited-up centre ground, as he himself described it and indeed – he went from his early days doing subversive stand-up comedy to becoming the face of [Israel’s] Discount Bank’s ad campaigns. Would it be accurate to say then that yours is in fact the real subversive voice in the team?

AZ: It would. But let’s not forget that his final project was Tangled Roots.

What kind of person, who comes from the field of theatre, from satire no less, ends up connecting so completely and utterly with history and heritage?

AZ: ‘Heritage’ is a word that doesn’t mesh well with me, and I’d say that Modi was also no fan of it. I mean, it’s so Department of Education-y, you know? And that’s really not where we were coming from. We both had a tremendous love of history. He always had his head in a book. If you were to walk into his study, you’d find an extremely wide range of books there – books about the history of football from all over the world, books by historians and sociologists analysing the local narrative, etc. I was also constantly reading, and often it was like we were corresponding with each other through books – I’d bring over with me a book that I’d read, and that’s how we would throw around ideas. But yeah, we had this burning love and passion for telling this story in some kind of different way.

When we were starting out, we felt like we were inventing something out of nothing. Because there really wasn’t anything else like it. Sure, we had Rebirth (‘tkuma’) and Pillar of Fire, where they did really nice work with the archives – but there too, the point of view was ultra-Zionist and very, like… you know, like the Arabs were just this tiny minority, and the story was told from the military’s and politicians’ point of view, and maybe with a bit about the economy in there too. And what we realised was that the story had to be told through all kinds of people. Because each one has their own narrative version of this place. And that’s when we had a very major breakthrough.

We told ourselves that an architect like Arieh Sharon would have his story, as would [actor] Shaike Ophir, and poet Rachel Bluwstein (aka ‘Rachel’). We put these people on the same playing field as Prime Ministers and created a spectrum that is also hypercritical, and which kept on revealing and delivering more and more angles. I’d like to remind you that It’s All People also premiered in 1995 – just a couple of years after the emergence of the new historians, meaning the coined term ‘new historians.’ All of this is at the very beginning – the kick-off, essentially, when everything was that much more critical. So we end up falling into this thing and are both hypervigilant.

Same goes for In the Jewish State, which is a historical series that tells the story of this place. Our thesis is that historical documentary content doesn’t necessarily belong exclusively in Ministry of Defence offices, all boxed up. It can all pop up at university theatre departments, and all kinds of sketches at [satire theatres like] the Koomkoom (‘kettle’), the Matate (‘broom’), [military musical comedy ensembles] and The Chizbatron. And then, it’s up to you to examine these texts not as a sketch, but rather as a piece of historical documentary narrating a situation.

And without appropriating it either.

AZ: Exactly. Which is what we did.

You’re suggesting that the word ‘heritage’ has an element of appropriation to it.

AZ: I am. That’s exactly right. And I think that Modi and I were essentially very unique in [our approach to] this matter.

In the Abraham Isaac Kook [aka ‘Rabbi Kook’, former Chief Rabbi of Palestine] episode, Modi says in the intro that he knew nothing whatsoever about Rabbi Kook until you started working on the episode. Then he says, “but it’s never too late,” before immediately adding, “well actually, maybe it is because nowadays, yeshiva students are never going to study Rachel’s poetry.” Essentially, Modi is highlighting this complexity and this practically tragic chasm that divides the content worlds of the secular and the religious, and which remains every bit as topical today.

AZ: Think about it. This was made 25 years ago. And what’s Modi actually saying here? He’s telling you: No one’s ever taught me about Rabbi Kook. The education system I was part of never taught us anything about Rabbi Kook. I studied all about Rachel and her poetry, but Rabbi Kook? Nothing. I never even learned the most fundamental thing which was that Rabbi Kook was a man who approached Zionism differently to the majority of orthodox rabbis of his time and said that there was something here; something was happening, so why don’t we get better acquainted with it, figure out what’s what – and he certainly did consider Zionist pioneering ideology a harbinger of sorts of Salvation.

Rabbi Kook recognised [Zionist] pioneer ideology. He recognised the pioneers. And we went on a journey chronicling the one he’d gone on. This is a trip he took back in 1913 to the pioneering settlements, and just imagine that in 1913, Rachel the poet is just over by the Sea of Galilee. It took a long time before Rabbi Kook eventually made it into the secular school curriculum. He simply did not exist. No one had heard of him. Meaning, there is a total sweeping separation going on here. I think that what Modi and I did was we took a look at Zionism, at Israeli society, then said: why not also introduce some religious Zionism heroes to root for? And we went with Rabbi Kook and Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (aka the Chazon Ish, [‘man’s vision, trans.’]). And both in fact play a pivotal role in the narrative, the local narrative that is, in the sense of the religious [Jews’] approach to the development of this place.

What would Modi have made of the latest general election results?

AZ: Look, Modi – I think – would not have been all that surprised. I mean, there are those who got up the next day after the election and went, “Good God, there’s no place left for us.” I don’t share that sentiment. I think the path we went down led into all areas, and it’s a very clear path. Incidentally, one of the reasons we made Tangled Roots and are now making The Secular is that everything we’re currently experiencing in Israeli politics – a lot of it is to do with ignorance. I think the majority don’t even realise what’s actually happened here. They have no grasp of the processes. No knowledge of the story. What they know is the story they’ve been told. And everyone has a different tale to tell. There are at least five competing narratives here that don’t necessarily weave together. There are those who will tell you it was already all over in 1952 or ’53 when the education system split up into five subsets.

Sometimes it feels like there’s still only the one radio, and one station, broadcasting the one voice.

AZ: I don’t believe that’s true. I think it did take a long time to shake off this whole uniform narrative business. Incidentally, we’ve been washing our hands of the metanarrative since the 1970s or ‘80s; in many ways. By the way, I do think that everyone here was stuck in this constant appeasement mentality [of the religious and orthodox]. They would say the secular have no ‘Jewish consciousness,’ which is also the main attack line they’re now going with – ‘Jewish consciousness this, Jewish consciousness that.’ I don’t think we have secular consciousness here. Nor has it ever been taught. What I mean by that is that they don’t know that the State of Israel would never have been established had it not been for the Zionist movement, and that the Zionist movement would never have started had the world not gone through all these secularisation processes.

Shall we segue now from secularisation to digitisation? I would love to hear from you how, in your opinion, the Israeli Film Archive’s digitisation scheme has influenced and benefited documentary filmmaking?

AZ: Whenever I watch archive footage, I always check who shot it and when. And when I arrange the footage on the computer, I always make sure I know how the whole thing played out. Then, and only then will I start using the footage. Because there is a massive difference whether it was shot by a Brit or an avid Zionist who wants to tell all his mates how brilliant life is over here. Those are two fundamentally different things. And oftentimes, folks who use the archive fail to make that distinction.

When I was making Tel Aviv-Jaffa and The Kibbutz, it was exceptionally hard to locate footage of what happened here in 1948. Because that kind of footage ended up censored. In that respect, digitisation has brought us closer to a great deal of footage which, until now, was kept in uncatalogued, inaccessible reels. Now, first and foremost, you can look the story in the eye. Maybe not all the way, but a hell of a lot more. Which is what we also tried to do in Tangled Roots. Making that combination between cataloguing and knowing who shot the footage and when. It’s important to know whether certain footage was shot in the 1930s or ‘40s. Then, you go and dig up the family collections, and in the Angel and Beecham family collections there will be footage of the 1949 ruins. That’s something the standard narrative will deliver you that much less of.

By “standard narrative,” are you referring to the newsreels, for instance?

AZ: I am. Over the years, we’ve been exposed to an ever-increasing amount of footage, but it’s still not enough. I will truly give thanks when the IDF archives are digitised. Of course, we’re discovering more and more points of view, so that what’s actually happening in archives at the moment is nothing short of miraculous. And what’s happening today in your archive, in my view, is double the miracle.

Care to elaborate?

AZ: When we wrapped production on In the Jewish State, we realised that the further we advance on the timeline, the less footage we have. For instance, all the footage from Channel 2’s prelaunch pilot days is stashed away in producers’ storage cupboards. Then, we learned that apparently quite a few groups just went ahead and destroyed all their footage.

Because they saw no archival merit to it.

AZ: Precisely. So I said I had to something about it, and we ended up starting the archive forum. At first, we would get together at my place and right off the bat, I also got [Israel Film Archive director] Meir Russo and [Israeli Broadcasting Association archive director] Billy Segal involved. We dreamt of a place that would bring all archives together under one roof where, with the push of a button, you could have everything you wanted. Or at least, most of it. And at the time, it seemed about as remote as the stars. And we cracked on, holding conferences for the next ten years. And I say this humbly, but it seems to me that the archive forum did bring about a shift in consciousness, and people started to realise that this was something very, very important indeed.

When we were making It’s all People, all along we felt like we were smashing it – going in without any problem and smashing all those myths to pieces and looking the story straight in the eye. I think that people’s connection to this place really is deeply entwined with the narrative; this old tale they used to tell here and still do, despite the fact that for a great many people it’s now that much less relevant than it’s ever been.

As we wrap up, let me take us back to Modi. Your partnership, your relationship, your work together. I would love it if you could share with us something you knew about Modi which no one else did.

AZ: A kind, loyal man with every fibre of his being – to this place, to family, and to everyone who was close to him. Someone who would never leave you on your own; who left no line unread.

Before we go, talk to us about your next project.

AZ: I’m working on a series about secularism. I want to reveal the roots of Jewish secularism that started at the same time as similar trends round the world. Because secularism was not born here, and we remain in dialogue with secularism and the shifts it’s been through, both here and globally. And whilst the majority of the series is about Israel, it also offers a more in depth look at these processes because we certainly didn’t come up with all of it.
I will also say that secularism is a type of circular movement. It isn’t so much self-sustaining as a concept, per se, and it’s always up against something – see secular vs. religious. What a lot of people don’t realise, and maybe that will end up being the story this series tells, is that there are lots of religious Jews who are in fact secular. Because secularism isn’t just faith, or lack thereof. It is so much more than that. It’s modernity; it’s research; it’s science; it’s medicine; it’s enlightenment; it’s colonialism. It’s a plethora of things.

And how much are you missing Modi throughout this whole process?

AZ: Yoav Leshem, the series producer hired me, he hired us, and was left with me. I work for a production company that has helped me immensely, immeasurably to deal with something incredibly dramatic. Modi’s death happened while we were working on the project, at the editing stage, so yeah – I’ve definitely had some very difficult moments. And still do.

Truly, a tremendous loss.

AZ: By the way, I’d just like to add one more thing for the archive’s sake: it’s important to me to say that both the cinematheque and the archive are Modi’s and Anat’s home, and that I’ve entrusted all my footage in your capable hands – and I urge all producers around me to do the same and hand over their raw footage. Because that is where you’ll find the really important historical documentation for the coming years.

To watch Tangled Roots, Episode 3, follow this link:

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