A mosaic of kibbutz memories
The creators of "Children of the Sun" did not go on location with a camera: The film consists of a mosaic of old clips and most of the work was done in the editing room.
Now the screen shows a series of very brief clips of smiling parents proudly holding their infant children up to the camera. In the last clip, a mother hands over her infant daughter to a caretaker wearing an apron. She takes the baby, turns around and walks away.
These images and voices are part of "Children of the Sun," a film by Ran Tal, which opens tomorrow for a commercial run at cinematheques across Israel. It is an unusual film and follows a long list of movies and other works of art produced in Israel in recent years that attempt to understand the nature of the kibbutz, that sociological experiment that began as a sweet dream of an equal society and collapsed in recent decades amid a reality of cutthroat capitalism. Nonetheless, Tal's film offers a new perspective on the subject, both in terms of content and structure.
The creators of "Children of the Sun" did not go on location with a camera: The film consists of a mosaic of old clips and most of the work was done in the editing room. On the other hand, the soundtrack is based on interviews Tal conducted with dozens of adults who grew up on kibbutzim. They agreed to share their childhood memories with him and reveal the scars they carry from the days on the kibbutz.
The entire film is accompanied by the interviewees' stories, told by them, but their faces do not appear. The screen shows archive footage filmed mostly by amateur photographers living on the kibbutzim from the 1930s to the 1970s. The fascinating end product won three prizes at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival: the Wolgin Prize for best documentary film, the editing prize (awarded to the movie's editor, Ron Goldman) and the prize for a creative work using archive material. In addition, the film also featured at the documentary film competition at the Toronto Film Festival, which opened last week.
The work on the film lasted three years, of which Tal and Goldman spent half in the editing room. "It took us a long time to understand what the film would be about. The kibbutz makes a great story, it's the most interesting creation of the Zionist movement, the most radical from an intellectual perspective," says Tal during a meeting in a Tel Aviv cafe. "In the end, we realized that what interested us most was the decision made on the kibbutz to get rid of the nuclear family and create a collective family in its stead, thereby creating a better person, a new person. We decided that the conflict our film would shed light on would be the tension created on the kibbutz between children and their parents, and the tension created years later between the by now grown-up kibbutz children and their own offspring."
And indeed, the film provides numerous accounts by "Children of the Sun," the children of the "sun of the nations" revolution, who were born on kibbutzim during the first half of the twentieth century to parents infused with a socialist spirit. In the film the now-adult children tell about life in the children's house (how they were told that "everyone will now sit on the potty and do what they have to do"), about the distance between them and their parents ("We called our parents by their names, not Mom and Dad, because that's bourgeois"), of the ideological burden placed on them ("They expected us to be a new human being, the children of the gods"), of the death of the individual ("They referred to us by the name of our group") and of the suffering that was the lot of those who were different.
Later in the film, the same faceless voices recount the difficulties they encountered when they became parents. They recall, among other things, how difficult it was for them to leave their children with the caretakers in the children's house, they regret that they didn't devote enough time to their children, complain that the kibbutz's idea of "togetherness" took their private family from them and acknowledge that they were eventually left with a feeling that a great opportunity had been lost.
And yet, alongside all those critical voices, Tal also includes some that justify the kibbutz's customs and rules. In addition, he presents archival clips usually depicting a merry and rosy scene against the harsh criticism voiced in the soundtrack. "I tried to show the distortions, but I didn't want to create a victimized text. I tried not to give anyone any breaks, to show the sadness, but also the beauty. After all, in the 1940s, for example, the kibbutzim were not the most miserable places to live," he says.
Tal, 44, is a native of Kibbutz Beit Hashita. He spent his childhood and teenage years here. To this day, his mother still lives in Beit Hashita, and she is one of the main interviewees in the film. Tal left the kibbutz when he started his military service. Today he lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two children. It was the birth of his children that took him back to his childhood days on the kibbutz.
"I grew up in the children's house. For us everything resembled our parents' childhood experience on the kibbutz, but for us it was already 'kibbutz-lite,'" he says. "The structure remained, but its fervor had been lost. Still, it is obvious that we grew up in a way that seems strange to most people. This film is an attempt to understand this kind of childhood. When I see my children growing up now, I understand how different it is from the way I grew up. One of the interviewees in the film says that a society of children is very cruel, that the kibbutz transferred this type of society into the children's families, and that therefore they have to live without the basic protection provided by the nuclear family. Today, when I see my daughter coming home, I realize that she has her own room, her own bed, she has a supportive place."
Tal is a lecturer at Sapir College's film department. His most well-known works include the documentary films "Mokher Haregashim" about the life of director George Ovadia; "67 Ben Zvi Road" about the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute; "Beit Halomotay" (My Dream House), which tried to grasp the meaning of the concept "house"; and the drama "Skin Deep" ("Malka Lev Adom"), which he directed together with Etgar Keret and which won the Israel Academy of Film's award and other international prizes.
Any talk about the kibbutz, Tal says, has always been charged. "Once it was considered a paradise, but in recent years it has been demonized, people talk about it as a terrible place. But it was neither a paradise nor was it hell. It was basically a place with a lot of distortions." In their film, Tal and Goldman did not want to present the story of the kibbutz in a single, authoritative voice; instead, they preferred to present it as a collection of personal testimonies from dozens of interviewees that combine to present a collective story. "We wanted to hear from people who lived in kibbutzim back then and had not necessarily formulated definite thoughts on the entire period. In so doing, it's possible to have something authentic, which often holds more truth. I wanted to tell the story using short, undramatic, individual and personal stories, with unimportant bits of history and in the end create history from them."
This approach also prompted Tal and Goldman to choose amateur films over professional clips. These amateurish films, he says, "do not intend to document important moments in the history of the nation. Instead they document small family moments, and collective ones, too. Aesthetically speaking, the people who make such films will of course not film a sick child or family quarrels. Usually they film vacations, the child going to first grade, things like that. And when people film this way, without realizing it, they are writing their own personal history, which is a history of happiness, so that in another 50 years they will be able to see what a happy family they had."
In his conversations with the interviewees, Tal tried to create a family-like atmosphere to make it easier for them to recall "fragments of memories, bits of life" and to revive their past. He decided not to film them because he wanted to allow the archive clips to create a new world. "I didn't want to switch each time from those films to the talking heads and back," he said, "that is after all the easiest thing, to occasionally revert to the interviewees' sparkling eyes. But I wanted to deal abstractly with real and filmed memories. What really happened, what do people remember? What is documented in the films?"