During its peak years, Carmel Newsreels employed about 30 people, and yet it is hard not to see the newsreels it produced as a one-man enterprise. Nathan Axelrod, who was born in Russia in 1905, understood the importance of newsreels during the pre-state period.
His love for the cinema, his adherence to his goal, his ability to improvise (thanks to which he constructed a film studio and an editing table by himself), and his business talent turned Axelrod into the main pioneer of the developing film industry in Palestine during the days of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community. To this day there are those who complain about the fact that Axelrod was never awarded the Israel Prize, in spite of his great contribution to the establishment of the Hebrew film industry and the preservation of the national memory of the Yishuv and the early days of the state. In 1984, three years before his death, Axelrod was named an honorary fellow in the film department in Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts.
Already as a child of 12, note Nathan Gross and Yaakov Gross in their book "The Hebrew Film: Chapters in the History of Silent and Talking Movies in Israel" (in Hebrew), Axelrod was in contact with a projectionist in a movie theater, from whom he received pieces of film and screened them to an audience of his friends in a movie machine that he built with his own hands.
At the age of 19 he began to film and organized an amateur theater group, but in those days he invested most of his energy in his activity in the Zionist youth movement Hehalutz. Seven years later, in 1924, he immigrated to Israel and met Leah, his wife-to-be and partner to his lifelong cinema project.
"His dream was to make feature films, and he thought he would find a film industry here in which he could work," Leah Axelrod says. "Acquaintances told him about a filmmaker who lived in Jerusalem. He traveled there and met Yaakov Ben Dov, who made films for the Jewish Agency. Nathan proposed to him that they start a feature film industry, but Ben Dov laughed at him and said: 'We're 200,000 Jews here in Palestine. Who will invest in such films? How will we return the investment?" Axelrod was very disappointed, says Leah, but would not allow this refusal to break his spirit. A distant relative told him about a man named Yerushalayim Segal, who was a famous translator of films in that period, and Axelrod decided to meet with him, too.
"Segal told him, 'If you prove you can make films, I'll invest the money.' Nathan wrote something, a small and amusing scene, took a few friends, filmed and brought it to Segal to see. They traveled together to a studio in Rishon Letzion, screened it in front of several people, and when the response was enthusiastic, Segal agreed to invest 10 Egyptian liras in Nathan's film."
Axelrod prepared to make his first film, "Hehalutz" ("The Pioneer") based on a script he wrote himself. He decided to leave the directing to Alexander Penn, whom he had met on a training program in Rehovot, an agricultural community at the time. However, when it turned out that the amateur production of "Hehalutz" was eating up overly large sums of money, work on the film was halted, and Axelrod and Segal together founded the Moledet company, which produced advertising film clips, documentaries and newsreels.
In 1935 Axelrod started a company of his won, Carmel Films, the first in the country to produce movie newsreels regularly, on a weekly basis. Over time, Axelrod brought in his relatives to do various jobs in the company, and turned it into a family firm.
Axelrod dictated the enthusiastic Zionist tone of newsreels. Leah Axelrod recalls that one of his most exciting moments - when he was invited as the sole cinematographer to record the declaration of the state in May 1948. "He was so happy, I can't describe how emotional he was," she says.
The newsreels and documentaries supported his family and enabled Axelrod to produce several feature films. For example, in 1932 he filmed the short "Once Upon a Time," and a year later the first full-length feature film produced in Palestine, "Oded the Wanderer." Later Axelrod directed and produced several additional films: "Over the Ruins" (1936), "Don Quixote and Sa'adya Pancho" (1956), "The True Story of Palestine" (1962) that he directed with Yoel Zilberg and Uri Zohar and "Havu Banot L'Eilat" (1964).
"They wrote about Nathan in the Guinness Book of Records, how it was possible for someone to start a film industry without electricity," says Leah Axelrod. "And another record, related to the fact that from the start we received no help from the government and from institutions."
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