An intriguing and ambitious pastiche of history from 1930 through the 1970s, Eliau Lilti and Arik Berenstein’s Israel: A Home Movie strings together first person accounts of seemingly mundane life that either inform or were interrupted by the nation’s history. It’s decidedly one sided in terms of looking at the history of Jewish existence in the region – never really questioning Jewish motivation in the region with any degree of depth, with the only commentary coming from the same first person, biased accounts as the films. It also might not be the best history lesson for anyone going in cold and not knowing anything about the region. There’s a definite learning curve involved here, but for those willing to wrestle with the facts and fill in the gaps on their own, Lilti and Berenstein certainly make the case that the footage they have unearthed and sourced from various families certainly skews the story more towards fact than many other documents on the subject could.
Starting with a discussion of how immigrants from all over Europe shaped Israel into the nation it would become and culminating with some visceral footage from the Yom Kippur War, A Home Movie hits all the major high points in Israeli history. Focusing primarily on the formation of the state, the Super 8 and 16mm footage from the era looks at everything from post-World War II malaise to happy weddings to the fall of Jaffa and the eventual returns to the kibbutz and the hardships therein. No talking heads. No other frame of reference. If nothing else, it’s pure documentary in terms of the images being presented.
The commentary – provided by those who lived there at the time or families of those involved, not historians – proves a bit more problematic. While at the best of times the commentary hints at darker truths and revelations about those in the film and their history (including audible arguments between people over the silent footage and numerous mentions of how certain people died or starved), quite often the bouncing around between footage is more disorienting than novel. While Lilti and Berenstein provide title cards to remind viewers of the year and the film is arranged in perfect chronological order, there’s a possibly purposeful sense of displacement between the voices that makes it hard to keep things straight. It would certainly help to be well versed in Israeli history going in, or else great passages will be somewhat lost on the uninitiated.
It might be best to view the film more as a work of art than as a straight documentary or history. Through the layering of voices and deteriorating images, Lilti and Berenstein create an effectively haunting tone that oozes with struggle, sacrifice, and pain that echoes through generations. Ultimately, that’s their strongest suit in this otherwise uneven, but undoubtedly original take on the birth of a nation.