There is an ineradicable quality of melancholy in old home movies. If they’re your own, you can’t help but yearn for a younger, more energetic and healthier version of yourself, and for the ghostly images of family and friends long dead to take corporeal form once more. But even the home movies of total strangers call out to us with reminders of the evanescence of human existence. When you look at film footage of some stranger’s young son leaving a factory in Birmingham, England, in 1912, it is impossible not to wonder if he would be dead in the trenches only two or three years later.
These thoughts are inevitable when one is faced with a film like “Israel: A Home Movie,” which opens on July 10 at Film Forum. Directed and written by Eliav Lilti, and conceived and produced by Arik Bernstein, the film opens with a montage of personal moments from nearly 50 years of home movies, with voices murmuring, “He’s 70 now,” and “He only filmed pretty girls.” Before the film shifts into the chronological sequence that gives it what little structure it has, we are already placed in the odd dialectical tension between private and public presentation that is another key element in compilation films of this sort. The best moments in “Home Movie” are the ones that emphasize the edgy coexistence of the intimate and the socio-political.
The most obvious example of this theme is, undoubtedly, the several selections of footage from home movies shot by Udi Dayan of his father Moshe. Udi can’t help remarking sardonically on the famous eye patch and the instantly recognizable swagger of the military hero. (He also offers a few choice wisecracks about his own brother, who easily surpassed him in success and fame.) But when the film reaches 1973 and the Yom Kippur War, Udi turns somber and for the next several minutes speaks movingly of how his father felt he was made a scapegoat for the Israeli military’s shortcomings. Finally, there is an understated but moving recollection of Dayan’s death, juxtaposed with his son’s footage of their old house being demolished by a construction crew.
Even more powerful is the section of the film that draws on footage from the early ’60s, juxtaposed with a soundtrack of poet Ronny Someck recounting his introduction as an Iraqi Jewish schoolboy, growing up in Israel, to the Holocaust. A neighbor’s wife commits suicide and when Someck innocently asks what she died of, the widower replies, “She died of Buchenwald.” This cryptic remark sends the kid back to his mother who explains with startling immediacy, triggering a lifelong concern for Someck.
The problem with “Israel: A Home Movie” is that there aren’t more moments like that. Too often Lilti speeds past other potentially powerful images and events, impelled by the ticking of the clock. For example, a piece of footage in which we see a family at play on the beach with the burnt-out hull of the Altalena behind them, only a few hundred feet away, is quickly explained, but insufficiently explored. Tied to chronology, the film feels arbitrary and a bit shapeless. The decision to withhold all contemporary images is a sound one, but it means that we never see the people whose voices are on the soundtrack, except when someone else turns the family movie camera on them.
The real problem lies in the nature of the films on which Lilti and Bernstein have based their work. In a found-footage documentary, a filmmaker is at the mercy of the archivist. If the images available don’t address the subject chosen, the filmmaker will be equally unable to address it. The cliché in cop shows is “You go where the evidence takes you.” In making a film from pre-existing footage, you have to go where the images take you. Lilti and Bernstein have either resisted the images they have chosen or tried to shoehorn them into a thematic grid that doesn’t quite fit. I’m not sure which, but the result is a film that is at once moving and exasperating, a lost opportunity despite its frequent felicities.
“Israel: A Home Movie,” written and directed by Eliav Lilti, opens Wednesday, July 10, for a one-week engagement at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.