Text size

"Let's not get into it. There are things I cannot say. It happened 90 years ago, but it continues to this day," a Zichron Yaakov resident told Shachar Magen, director of "Strange Death," in an interview. Another longtime resident of the quaint town and former agricultural village speaks about her inherited hatred of the famous Aaronsohn family. But she quickly retreats, suggesting that, "perhaps you should erase that part later."

The son of the former chair of the village council says "the Aaronsohn family bought people with money," but he also appears to quickly regret his own candor.

A total of 90 years have passed since the NILI Jewish underground in Zichron Yaakov assisted the British in their fight against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But the emotions roused by their espionage activities still simmer under the surface among offspring of residents who were alive during that period. Zichron residents squirmed on screen, when "Strange Death" premiered on Sunday as part of the Israeli film competition in the DocAviv Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival. It seems that, on one hand, Zichron residents long to air their family's version of distant events in public, but on the other they take pains to restrain themselves lest they reignite battles that have long since been dampened.

The NILI espionage network (the word is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase meaning "Israel's eternity does not lie," from 1 Samuel 15), made up of the siblings Sarah, Aaron and Rebecca Aaronsohn, and their friend Avshalom Feinberg, was established during World War I to pass information to the British and expedite their conquest of the Land of Israel from the Turks. According to the introductory text at the opening of the film: "Many residents of the village opposed espionage and feared for the fate of their community," it says, hinting at a forgotten, shady aspect of the national myth. The statement finally trains its gaze on one mysterious figure, Pearl Apelboim, whom it numbers "among the opponents" of NILI.

Two years ago, Magen, 32, read an article in Yedioth Ahronoth, in which Hillel Halkin spoke of the secrets concealed for years behind the NILI myth. Halkin, who wrote about the subject at length in his book "A Strange Death" (2005), presented testimony by one member of the Aaronsohn family, to the effect that four women rejoiced in the streets of Zichron when members of the spy network were captured and tortured by the Turks. He maintained that, days later, Pearl Apelboim died "a strange death."

The article piqued the curiosity of Magen, who decided to take his camera to Zichron Yaakov. "I actually went out of love for Sarah. I also grew up on Dvora Omer's book," he acknowledges with a smile, referring to the Hebrew children's classic "Sarah of NILI." "I went to Zichron because I realized there was a secret there no one spoke about. At first, I didn't believe it still existed, but when I arrived I found many people who preferred not to talk. And in my opinion, the secret is the interesting thing - that mechanism for not talking about something."

Magen reports that he initially went from house to house asking residents what they knew about the day when Sarah Aaronsohn was handed over to the Turks. Aaronsohn was marched down the main street of Zichron Yaakov toward Beit Aaronsohn, the family home, and now a museum.

"That day was historically explosive. Everyone remembers a fragment of the events," Magen says. "One woman speaks about what her mother saw when she peeked through the shutters. Another remembers hearing that they spit at Sarah. Another says that no one spit, that no such thing happened. We wanted to tell the story of that march from various perspectives."

He asked residents to tell him what they may have heard about the four women who some say rejoiced in the streets when they heard NILI members screaming, as they were tortured. "Some refused to be interviewed, and some hung up the phone," Magen says. He finally decided that the three women named Pnina, after the grandmother rumored to have died "a strange death," would play leading roles in the film.

"All three of them opened the paper one day and read the headline, 'Who Killed Pearl Apelboim?' They were shocked," Magen says. "They had no idea that some claimed their grandmother died a mysterious death."

The director embarked on an adventure with the three female leads that bordered on detective work in order to disover whether or not their grandmother informed on NILI members and was killed in an act of revenge. But he admits, "The investigation that takes place in the film is amateurish to the extreme." Rather than focus on historical revelations, Magen chose to place the secret at the center of his film. He presented Zichron residents as echoes of their ancestors and emphasized the differences between heroes and anti-heroes.

"This film confronts two types of people: people like the Aaronsohns, who live large and want to change history, and others who live a simple life and watch history pass them by," he explains. "In the film, I am actually fond of the anti-hero, but as always, the hero ultimately wins. There is no substitute for a hero. Those of us who are anti-heroes do not offer a better story. We don't hold the gun that shoots in the end."

Magen directed two previous documentary films, "The Gevatron's Mother (in collaboration with Ayelet Gil)," and "Life Stories." His first novel, "Backyard Slaughter," was short-listed for the prestigious Sapir Book Prize last year. His fascination with the Israel of yesteryear is palpable in all of these works as well as in the new film. "I have a love of this place that is actually for its eccentricity. Not for the beautiful Land of Israel but for the sweaty, rooted Land of Israel," he makes clear. "In my films, I strive to spoil the paralyzing, nostalgic view of Israel."

In addition to writing and directing documentaries, Magen served as cultural editor of the Ynet Internet site in recent years. He recently embarked on an extended leave of absence to devote time to writing a new, daily television drama, "Hasufim" ("Exposed"), starring Yael Bar Zohar and slated to premiere on the Hot cable network this summer.

"It is a real soap opera," he announces, stressing that financial considerations were not the main impetus for his venture in TV writing. "It's not unlike other things I have done, as far as I am concerned, because it comprises invention. I invent an entire world from zero, and create characters. If they're good, the story works." This time as well as in "The Gevatron's Mother" (about the internal conflicts that plagued the legendary kibbutz singing group), and "Backyard Slaughter," a detective thriller about a veterinarian who is the descendant of early-Zionist watchman Alexander Zaid, Magen decided to place women on the front lines.

"I have an easier time with female leads," he says. "Women are still required to fight harder, and I find their struggle more interesting than that of men. It requires a stronger sense of self. It interests me to place simple women in an extreme world and see what they do. For example, my book involved a dreary, asexual woman drawn into a bloody reality."

The three Pninas in "A Strange Death" are also common women who grapple with a florid scene surrounded by death. "I believe that you don't always have to opt for a hero who is larger than life. I am interested in doing the opposite - focusing on regular characters in the midst of an interesting environment," Magen explains.

He confirms that death occupies a place of honor in his works. "I like death to be at the forefront, in the title. It has a very dramatic but not necessarily tragic dimension." He also confesses that he is fond of the thriller genre. Therefore, his plans for another novel come as no surprise. "An idea has been running around in my head for two years. But I have yet to set aside time to write it," he reports. "I thought about people finding children's bodies in Beit Bialik [the one-time home of Israel's national poet, today a museum] in Tel Aviv."