Reel Life: Flick Pix
Clinton Baily and Ben-Gurion - Photo by Arie Bar-Lev
The Old Man looks back on his place in Israel’s history
Written and Directed by Yariv Mozer, based on Ben-Gurion: His Later Years in the Political Wilderness by Avi Shilon
Produced by Yael Perlov, Mozer, Juliette Guigon & Patrick Winocour
Released by Go2Films
Israel/France/Germany. 70 min. Not Rated
In English and Hebrew with English subtitles.
By Nora Lee Mandel
Ben-Gurion: Epilogue is a serviceable visual history lesson of 20th century Israel through the eyes of the man who was at the center of its founding and the country’s long-serving first prime minister.
Director Yariv Mozer’s documentary is organized around unique film footage from a previously unseen six-hour 1968 interview. Producer Yael Perlov discovered the background research footage in the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive in Jerusalem, where she was restoring a feature her father had made about Ben-Gurion. But there was no sound – six months of searching uncovered the soundtrack in the Ben-Gurion Archives at the University of the Negev, with a team of restoration specialists uniting them.
Ben-Gurion selected the interviewer, Dr. Clinton Bailey, a young academic immigrant from the United States he had befriended, and who later had a distinguished scholarly career. “The Old Man”, who was nicknamed that decades earlier, was 82, five years into his political retirement on a kibbutz in the Negev Desert, recently widowed, and five years before his death.
Mozer usefully backs up the interview with context from Avi Shilon‘s Ben-Gurion: His Later Years in the Political Wilderness and well illustrates with a dazzling array of newsreels and archival footage radio recordings and still photographs of the events Ben-Gurion describes. (There’s a bit too much of the publicity type formula footage from his head of state visits, such as to Buddhist temples in Buddha, or getting exercise advice from Moshe Feldenkrais about his method).
Though the interviewer, annoyingly, isn’t particularly well-informed about Ben-Gurion’s life and runs out of questions before his time is up, the questions about his early life help differentiate his generational context and world view from Israeli leaders now. He left Poland in 1906 to pursue Theodor Herzl’s Zionist dream, one of the early of the 35,000 in what’s known as The Second Aliyah (1904 – 1914), drawn from Eastern Europe to the Palestine under the Ottoman Empire – but he’s sarcastic about those who came and left the rugged life then. “I was reborn when I came to this country”, changed from his Diaspora name Grün and rose to leadership positions through wars and bitter internecine conflicts among Jews over politics, religion, territory, and military strategy in order to preside over the founding of the country in 1949. However, he says he didn’t truly see his agricultural-based dream come true until he saw this kibbutz in 1953: “I’m against big cities. They’re not good for humanity – it’s better to live in a small place.” For all his secular nationalism and emphasis on universal military service as an educational institution, he sounds somewhat more like the later religious Zionists about the land than Tel Aviv sophisticates, and repeatedly quotes Biblical prophets for their criticism of rulers.
But the film portrays him as a very pragmatic politician. Contemporary audiences are reminded how controversial domestically his negotiations were with the West German government for secret military assistance and public Holocaust reparations. (There’s clips of demonstrators protesting “Blood money!”). While he eloquently defends not blaming Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the children of Nazis for their fathers’ actions (“History is not moral”), Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer) last year showed there were plenty of ex-Nazis in Adenauer’s administration. He emphasizes that from the beginning of his political leadership he would make almost any borders compromise for permanent peace -- except for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. (Shilon‘s book surprisingly documented him including Hebron, in agreement with the extremists seen in The Settlers (Ha'mitnakhalim))
With only a brief interview with his daughter to comment on his family life – by noting his lack of family time, one of the most illuminating added short clips is of Musa Alami, a Palestinian Arab representative. They’d been negotiating together since the 1930’s, and he dismisses Ben-Gurion’s attempt to meet with him in London in 1969 as more of the same. Ben-Gurion’s paternalistic attitude towards the indigenous population stayed the same as towards his Constantinople law school classmates before World War I.
Though as a voluminous reader of history Ben-Gurion eschews the “great man” theory of the determinative influence of one person, I am curious what the other four plus hours in the interview revealed, especially toward the religion and religious Jews and the power he gave them over civic society. There’s no indication of the priorities for this edited version, whether due to physical condition of the footage or sound, lack of supporting visual material, or perhaps repetition.
So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.
April 14, 2017
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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