Sun Stroke

In the five months since it hit screens, a riveting documentary describing kibbutz life in the heyday of collectivism has spawned lively discussion - about parental alienation, communal homes and showers, and the elitist children's society.

Evening. The dining hall of Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk gradually fills up and becomes a movie theater. "I don't remember the dining hall ever being so full," one woman remarks. The lights are dimmed and the crowd is riveted by the images on the screen. They are watching "Yaldei hashemesh" - "Children of the Sun" - directed by Ran Tal, 44, who was born on Kibbutz Beit Hashita and was on hand to talk with Kfar Masaryk members about the film.

A series of splendid archival clips, from home movies made by amateur photographers on kibbutzim across the country from the 1930s to the 1970s, unfold on the screen. Against the backdrop of these scenes of kibbutz life, the voices of some 30 people evoke childhood memories, tell their personal stories and recall what it was like to grow up on a kibbutz in its collective heyday.

Watching the film is like turning the pages of a family photo album. Quickly, the audience identified one of their own, a member of Kfar Masaryk. "Look, it's Yehudit," someone called out. "What a beauty she was," another responded.

After the movie, when the lights came on, the audience stayed in their seats. They wanted to talk about what they had seen. "I feel that you showed the period as it once was, and that you let each of us interpret as he wishes," one viewer told the director. Another added: "I don't know if things were so bad once, but I have to say that you presented what existed with intellectual integrity, and that it is clear that the film was made with love."

"We have to admit that the parents did not want to lose their freedom," an elderly man remarked. "They were afraid to be with their family, afraid of the personal family intimacy."

"My feeling is that you didn't deal enough with the generation of parents," a woman said.

The dialogue between Tal and the audience went on for some time. Finally, many of them approached him personally to share their feelings. It's the same at every screening.

"Children of the Sun" was released five months ago, but the interest it has aroused continues unabated. About 20,000 people have seen the film to date, says Alon Garbuz, the director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

"I don't remember another documentary having this big a success," he notes. "The audience is made up of kibbutzniks, people who were in youth movements and in agricultural training groups, and former kibbutz members. They come in groups and bring their whole family, especially the children. A true kibbutz atmosphere is created here: They whisper to one another when they identify someone, and people in the audience from the era of the Palmah [pre-state commando force] have been known to point excitedly at the screen and shout out, 'Look, it's Moishe,'" Garbuz says.

"Sometimes I think that the only thing that's missing is someone with an accordion. After the screening, the lobby becomes a kind of communal dining hall: People stand around for hours, talking about the movie and reminiscing. This film is a phenomenon, compulsory viewing for anyone who ever lived on a kibbutz."

In "Children of the Sun," Ran Tal deconstructs the vast term "kibbutz" into small details, and from them reconstructs the big picture. He asked his interviewees about family life, motherhood, putting the children to bed, communal living, the sanctity of work, bereavement, the attempt to forge a "new person," conceptual radicalism, the lack of material things and more. Each bitter memory is interlaced with a sweet moment, then another memory, like an unfolding fan. Perhaps this is the secret of the film's charm: Even as the images, which are filled with the poetic beauty of the period, tug at the viewer's heartstrings and seduce him to sink into a nostalgic reverie and believe what his eyes see, the voices unravel and undermine the delectable scenes.

"The secret of the film's success is due to its sane audience," says Prof. Amia Lieblich, a psychologist who has published studies on kibbutz life. Its power stems from the fact that it does not say anything unequivocal, she adds. "It contains empathy for people, authentic images and many points of view, which are expressed by elderly, wise people - critical on the one hand, nostalgic on the other - and that is the truth of the matter: Reality is always complex and multivocal."

The trend in recent years has been to take a critical attitude toward the kibbutz. Two major examples are the 2005 group show about the kibbutz held at the Tel Aviv Museum's Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, and the autobiographical feature film "Adama meshuga'at" ("Sweet Mud," 2006) by Dror Shaul. Lieblich explains what differentiates them from Tal's documentary: "There has been a pendulum-like swing in the attitude toward the kibbutzim: from idealization to total condemnation. 'Sweet Mud,' with all due respect for its being a true story, which the director apparently experienced, makes people resort to generalizations and talk the same way about the kibbutz. 'Children of the Sun' makes it possible to understand the dilemmas of the parents' generation, to understand the cultural and spiritual context of the period. I saw the film twice, once at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and again at Kibbutz Beit Hashita. I sat there in the front row among elderly people and felt that they needed a hug. These are people who are asking themselves courageously: 'Was it all for nothing?' 'Was the whole concept misguided?' It was moving to see the discussion that developed and the reinforcement they get from the film."

Is the film really an act of healing? Joseph Mali is a kibbutz-born professor of history at Tel Aviv University, who today lives in Jerusalem. He first went to see the film alone at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, he says. "I got home and told my wife - who is not Israeli-born - and my children: 'Now you will really be able to know me.' For the second screening I collected my family, including my 88-year-old father, who still lives on Kibbutz Yakum, where I was born, and my brother. For my father, the film evoked memories of poverty and hard work. I saw it differently, as a fair- minded representation of my childhood. In recent years, there has been a tendency to settle accounts with the kibbutz movement, which is part of a general approach aimed at liquidating Zionism and the pioneers. I was dismayed by the exhibition at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion; there were works by 20 artists, but they all spoke in the same voice. 'Sweet Mud' continued the same line. But I like being on kibbutz and visiting it - I never experienced it as a trauma."

The way it was

Not long ago, Ran Tal received a letter from Yehudit Peled, 61, his homeroom teacher from Kibbutz Beit Hashita. The film, she wrote, "flooded me with memories again, like flipping through the family album. It opened the box of secrets about our identity. The things that always existed: the infinite loneliness on thundering winter nights when I couldn't fall asleep for hours, but also didn't dare call for help or run barefoot [from the children's house] to the parents' room, as other children did. The food that revolted me, the co-ed showers, even when hair began to appear in intimate places. The never-ending work in the orchard. The fact that our feminine side was ignored. The uniformity of the clothes. The demanding 'children's society' that ran roughshod over people. The desire to be like everyone else. The 'different' children, who were erased and spewed out as though they never existed. The stories about the secrets that we never knew. The secrets of the caregiver who had a number branded on her arm. What was that? I never knew.

"The feeling of superiority - the way the children of the neighboring town, Kiryat Shmona, were ignored. We certainly saw the children rummaging in the kibbutz dump, but that never made us want to find out what was going on there or mobilize to help others. And after all that, amazingly, as a mother and a young woman, I raised and educated my children in almost the exact same patterns as those I grew up with. I did not ask questions or try to protest.

"The film brings all these feelings to the surface. The pictures in motion affirm it: This is how it always was, it is not a hallucination - it really was. We were children of the sun, the sun that does not leave dark shadowy corners of loneliness. That smoothes out all the wrinkles of the questions, irons us out and flattens everything so we won't get lost in the folds. What now? Now we have the opportunity to read the story anew and bring to it our insights and our experience today, with a generous dose of conciliation concerning the things that always were."

Peled says she wrote the letter because the film touched her "at all the nerve ends and exposed nerves, at the most intimate points of our existence - and we were not brought up to talk about intimate things."

S., who is today 86, joined a kibbutz when she arrived in the country, many years ago. "Children of the Sun" fomented a genuine transformation in her life. She says that it enabled her, perhaps for the first time, to hold a frank talk with her daughter about the past.

S: "We dreamed of building a world that humanity is apparently incapable of creating. We knew that the aspect of communal living [i.e., separate from the parents] was difficult for the children, but we made a humane effort, which in time turned out to be beyond human capability. In my opinion, 'Children of the Sun' addresses this without judgment or criticism. The things you see in the film are exactly as we saw them: We believed that our children were happy and that when they were photographed, their happiness was real. The gap lies between the scenes that were photographed and what existed below the surface. When the interviewees watch the images and analyze what the images do not say, and conduct internal soul-searching, the viewer also experiences the same process. The film touches on the burden that people have with respect to the parents' generation, and eases that burden for them."

Moreover, S. relates, "it was only in the wake of the film that my daughter came and hugged me and kissed me. Until then we were completely cut off from each other. She was tremendously angry at me, but suddenly, after the screening, we talked for the first time. There were no silences or accusations, as in the past; it was a true conversation. In my view, that is the true achievement of a work of art: to touch people and foment a change in their lives."

S.'s daughter R., now 53, left the kibbutz at the age of 20: "I have very bad memories of my childhood on the kibbutz. My daughter calls me, teasingly, a 'kibbutz survivor.' During the whole film I fidgeted uneasily in my seat. Afterward, I didn't stop talking for days about my experiences on the kibbutz. Everything came up - the film illuminates everything. I did not have a close and warm relationship with my siblings, and had the feeling that the whole nuclear family was falling apart. The film gave allowed me to understand how hard the parents' generation had been on itself; how our parents were swept up by romantic ideas and forgot the quality of humanity. I want to come to terms with the past. The film made it possible for me to end the disagreement with my mother, to touch her, talk to her. Not to argue with her, for the first time in years."

'Wave of nostalgia'

Ruth Shadmon, 63, is the director of the Beit Uri and Rami Nehushtan Museum of Art on Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Meuhad. She first saw the film at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and then at Beit Gabriel, on the shores of Lake Kinneret, taking her son and a girlfriend with her from the kibbutz.

Shadmon: "The film of course caused me to experience a wave of nostalgia that is hard for me to explain. There was nothing new for me in 'Sweet Mud.' I knew stories like that first-hand. But 'Children of the Sun' presents the period in its context: You see the meagerness and the pride and the sense that people felt beautiful. They were proud of the method and believed that this was the way life should be lived. I am the curator of historical exhibitions that document the state from its beginnings, but I find it difficult to talk about the artistic language of 'Children of the Sun.' My attitude toward the film is purely emotional."

Classmates of her late husband, David Shadmon, are seen in the film - children, from Kibbutz Givat Brenner, taking part in a roll call and drill. This is a group of light-haired children in school uniforms executing precision exercises perfectly. And this is in fact one of the most disturbing images in the film.

"The scenes of the gymnastics against the background of the red flags are a reflection of the period," she explains. "They had us do the exercises en masse in order to make us feel that when you do something together, it is more powerful."

Says Ran Tal, the director: "Everyone feels uneasy about the scenes of children that look as though they were taken from a Soviet regime. But when I go to a gym in Tel Aviv and see a group of adults working out with an instructor and doing the same exercise, based on the cult of the body - I don't know if that is any less disturbing or really all that different."

Other archival footage shows children being put to bed. The camera's lens caresses a number of children who are lying in bed. "That's Tamir," all the members of Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk who were at the screening said, thrilled. Tamir's mother, Yehudit Messer, 69, who was in the audience, was deeply moved. After the screening I learned that her son, Tamir Messer, who was five or six when he was filmed, was killed five years ago in a suicide bombing, while doing reserve duty in the West Bank city of Ariel.

"It was a surprise," Messer said afterward. "You might be amazed, but it was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn't know, of course, that I was going to see a movie in which Tamir would appear, but I am thrilled to know that he is documented in an artistic work. It is a type of commemoration. I miss him very much, and to see him in the middle of the screening was very touching."

Messer expresses another factor that is drawing kibbutz members to the film and moves them when they see it: Suddenly an experience which they had considered private is taking on a public dimension.

"As a girl," she explains, "the experience of communal living was a good one for me, but when I became a mother it was hard. It was hard for Tamir to part with me in the dark. He didn't say so in words, but he cried. I believe that because it was hard for me to part with him, it trickled down to him. When I saw the film I was happy to discover that I was not the only one who felt like that."

Indeed, the film's compassionate approach appears to be making it possible for many viewers to express feelings that were pent up for years. Tsili Rahman, 59, who was born on Kibbutz Merhavia to parents who came from Poland before World War II, cried throughout the film.

"The film touched pain I felt all along and flooded me with it," she says. "I sat and cried. My husband, who was also born on a kibbutz, couldn't understand why I was being so emotional. I felt that the film was working on me in opposite ways: The music and the beautiful images took me to one place, while the voices swept me into a different, deep personal experience."

Rahman singles out another aspect of the film. For perhaps the first time, it conveys to those who were raised on a kibbutz during those years what their parents felt and why they behaved as they did: "My father was an idealist, but my mother did not fully accept the kibbutz way of life. All during the film, I was flooded with the feelings of longing that I'd had for physical contact with my parents at night. I remember as a girl standing at the window of the children's house and shouting loudly to my parents, hoping that maybe the wind would carry my shouts and they would hear. I would enter my parents' home and feel like a stranger. I had the feeling that my parents were leading a double life.

"One day, when I was 14, I came to their place and discovered that every evening they drank tea - that in secret they were behaving like a bourgeois couple, with my mother putting on makeup and jewelry when no one was around, between the four walls. A few months before my mother died, of cancer, I hurled the truth at her and made her feel guilty. It is only now, through the film, that I am able to understand a little about how the adult generation saw things."W