Yonatan Pinchot, 14, of Silver Spring, Md., has a special connection to new documentary film called “Follow Me,” telling the personal story of an authentic, modern-day Israeli hero.
The teenager’s father, Ari Pinchot, was so inspired as a young man by the life and writings of that hero — Yonatan Netanyahu — that he and his wife, Rachel, decided to name their first child after him. And now, 16 years after first planning a film about the older brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and commander of the dramatic 1976 Entebbe rescue, it is finally complete and being screened here as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival.
Pinchot, 40, produced and co-directed “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” along with his friend and fellow producer, Stuart Avi Savitsky, who also named his son Yonatan after their hero. The film had its world premiere last week, and will be screened at the festival again on Jan. 23.
“When my wife and I first met we bonded over ‘The Letters of Yonatan Netanyahu,’” the collection of personal letters Netanyahu wrote to family and friends between high school and his death 13 years later, Pinchot recalled the other day. “We felt he was a unique hero, especially for young people, and a way to understand the character of the Israeli people.”
Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu was the only Israeli soldier killed at the Entebbe airport on July 4, 1976, when he lead the daring midnight raid that saved the lives of more than 100 Israeli hostages.
He was 30 years old, and in death became an instant legend.
But as the film shows, he had not only been a war hero and rising star in the Israeli Defense Forces, but a brilliant student pursuing a degree at Harvard, and a thoughtful young man who wrote movingly of the tensions within him — between his desire to pursue an academic life and his sense of commitment to serve his country.
Pinchot said his team wanted to tell a human story, not a political one, with Entebbe serving as “more of a refrain in the film,” which focuses primarily on “a young man absolutely devoted to his country, and the ramifications of that.”
Netanyahu’s decision to leave the U.S. and his Harvard studies and go back to Israel to re-join the army led, in part, to his divorce after only two years of marriage. His former wife is among those interviewed in the film, as is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who speaks very personally about his older brother.
Pinchot has helped make other Jewish-themed films. He was a producer of the award-winning 2004 documentary “Paper Clips,” about a public school class in Whitman, Tenn., that created a memorial to the Holocaust, and was associate producer of the 1998 documentary, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the Hall of Fame Jewish slugger for the Detroit Tigers.
The filmmaker has branched out to major feature films, in recent years co-producing “Everything Must Go,” starring Will Ferrell, and he was a co-executive producer of the current George Clooney political drama, “The Ides Of March.”
But Pinchot remains committed to producing what he calls “passion projects,” and is now working on two dramatic films connected to Israel. One is about a Baptist minister who joined the Haganah, and the other is an adaptation of retired Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner’s popular memoir, “The Prime Ministers.” (The Simon Wiesenthal Center is planning a documentary on the book, which describes key, and often tense, diplomatic meetings between Israeli prime ministers and world leaders.)
Pinchot observed that when he graduated from Yeshiva University, he wanted to be a teacher, “but I had this film bug, and I felt I could combine the two.” That’s what he and his professional partners have sought to do in producing both commercial and “passion” films, he said, and “it helps us feel good about what we do.”
For information on the Jan. 23 screening of “Follow Me” at the New York Jewish Film Festival, go to www.thejewishmuseum.org