An Israeli Filmmaker Who Found the Garden of Eden

Acclaimed filmmaker Ran Tal discusses his unusual filmmaking approach and how his subjects' backstories were his way forward.

After his successful 2007 documentary "Children of the Sun," director Ran Tal was in search of a subject for his new film. He found himself wandering in the area around Beit Hashita, the kibbutz in the Harod Valley where he was born and spent his childhood years. One day he was drawn to Gan Hashlosha, informally known as Sachneh, a national park near the kibbutz.

"I wanted to see what was happening with Sachne, because I know that place. It is very connected to my childhood memories," he says. "We went there a lot as kids - with the family, with friends - and also all kinds of kibbutz events were held there. So my knowledge of this place was intimate, I knew every rock there. And when I went back after more than 30 years, I discovered that the landscape may have been ruined a little since then but, beyond that, not much had changed. I didn't want to leave. It wasn't clear to me why, but I felt I wanted to stay there, to be there, to look, and do nothing."

Tal quickly realized that he would like Sachne to be the center of his next film.

"It's not that I had a thesis of some kind at this stage," he says. "At first it was simply an intuitive need, a physical need to be there ... not an intellectual one. And the decision to make the film basically gave me the opportunity to go there again and again, to be there, in the same place, with this light, with this landscape. It also enabled me to pay more visits to my mother, who still lives there," he grins, referring to the kibbutz.

"I had all sorts of answers - the kind that are insufficient to persuade film funders to invest in a movie - to the question of why I wanted to be there specifically. But then, very slowly, it began to come together for me: the understanding of why I should make a movie specifically about this place."

After almost two years of shooting, and after another few months in the editing suite, "The Garden of Eden" premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July, earning Tal the award for best director of a documentary. The film will be screened at the DocAviv Galilee festival in Ma'alot-Tarshiha on November 27 and is now playing at cinematheques around the country. In addition, Cinematheque Herzliya is launching a retrospective of Tal's films (along with "The Garden of Eden" and "Children of the Sun," there will be screenings of "67 Ben Tsvi Road," "Leibowitz in Ma'alot," and others ).

With "The Garden of Eden," Tal and his principal collaborators - cinematographer Daniel Kedem and editor Nili Feller - have produced a work that sketches a profile of contemporary Israel, with the various groups within it, the recreational habits that characterize it, and the history and politics that invade the everyday lives of those who live here.

The camera accompanies vacationers at Sachne through all seasons. It watches the Jews, Arabs, immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, kibbutzniks, ultra-Orthodox and groups of tourists that all gather there, and silently examines the interaction between them. The camera observes the vacationers as they eat, sing, rest, chat and bathe in the pools. And it doesn't neglect the long traffic jams at the entrance to the site during the summer, the shouting, the congestion, the potbellies, the energetic fanning of smoking barbecues, and also the filth that people leave behind.

It also occasionally manages to distill the beauty of the place, the beauty of the people, the beauty of a single moment which it is smart enough to isolate from the hubbub of the day.

Tal chose 12 individual stories to focus on. One person talks about the wife who left him. A woman talks about missing her dead husband. A young Arab man talks about the sense of alienation that he feels wherever he goes in the country and about his dream of escaping to Canada. Another woman talks about the moment she succeeded in standing up and leaving her abusive husband, to whom she had been married for 33 years, since age 14.

Each of the speakers reveals his or her story in a continuous monologue, which we hear in voice-over while watching footage of him or her vacationing at Sachne, finding a relaxing moment there - a moment of refuge from the complex realities of daily life.

Modernist Zionist utopia

While conducting research for the film, Tal learned that in the early 20th century, Sachne was a rather neglected natural pool, known only to local residents; its waters served to operate an old Ottoman flour mill. In the 1950s, a member of Kibbutz Nir David, Zvi Bahir, revealed his vision to turn Sachne into a bigger and more cultivated recreation spot. To realize his vision, he enlisted landscape architects Lippa Yahalom and Dan Tzur (future Israel Prize laureates for architecture ).

The park was rebuilt according to Yahalom and Tzur's design, and dedicated in 1958, on Israel's 10th Independence Day. That was also when it was renamed Gan Hashlosha (literally, "Garden of the Three" ), in memory of three local Jewish residents who were killed by a land mine in 1938 when scouting out a possible location for a new kibbutz. The site's original name, Hasachneh - Arabic for "the hot one" - derives from its hot spring water, which maintains a year-round temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.

"The historic conflict," Tal explains, "is reflected in these very names."

In his view, "Sachne is linked to a kind of hope," Tal says. "If you look at the history of national parks here, this one was built in the Modernist period, when they still believed it was possible to build things, change things. They believed that man can make the world a better place by the force of his rationality. Sachne is essentially 'imagined' nature. It is an amazing creation by Tzur and Yahalom, who succeeded in altering nature and turning this place into something else - into something many others think is totally natural.

"Today, of course, it's considered a crime to do such a thing. Today you cannot move a single thorn. Today the approach is that you mustn't touch, mustn't change, and anything that was altered has to be restored to its original state, the way it used to be. In this regard, Sachne still belongs to a Modernist Zionist utopia, because they got up and built an oasis in this place, a relaxation spot - nature with lawns, trees, waterfalls, where it's terribly pleasant - under the assumption that you can improve the world."

Tal chose not to address the history of Sachne directly on film, preferring instead to focus on the here-and-now. He based the title on the nickname locals gave Sachne over the years, after one of the sages of the Babylonian Talmud, Reish Lakish, said with regard to the Garden of Eden: "If it is in Eretz Israel, Beit She'an is its entrance."

Tal: "I was interested in looking at this image of a garden, which was once open to everyone and today is enclosed by fences. Where you enter, undress and expose yourself not only emotionally but also physically. I was interested in bringing together the great need of Israelis to barbecue, bathe, give the kids a fun day out, with the recognition that, actually, there is no Garden of Eden, that you can't return to the Garden of Eden; we enter this garden with everything we have brought with us from outside. I was interested in trying to combine these images of freedom and recreation, of a day on which you disengage from everything, with the understanding that this disengagement is not really possible."

Tal, who was born in 1963, graduated in 1994 from the cinema and television department at Tel Aviv University. Since then he has been making documentaries that deal with Israeli reality from a historic and social viewpoint. Over the years he made, among others, the short film "Skin Deep" (1996 ), together with writer Etgar Keret, and the documentaries "67 Ben Tsvi Road" (1998 ), which dealt with the National Institute of Forensic Medicine (aka Abu Kabir Forensic Institute ), and "My Dream House" (2005 ), which followed four families trying to build their ideal homes.

"Children of the Sun" (2007 ) earned Tal a series of awards, including the prize for best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival, an Ophir Award for best documentary, and seven prizes at the Israeli Documentary Film Festival. "Children of the Sun" featured a collage of home movies that were taken on various kibbutzim from the 1930s to the 1970s. It told the story of the first generation of kibbutz children, who were supposed to realize all the hopes and visions on which these pioneering collectivist-socialist communities were based. Archival footage was accompanied by contemporary interviews, presented in voice-over, with the kibbutz children as adults.

For "The Garden of Eden" (which Tal produced with Amir Harel and Ayelet Kait, with support from YES Docu, the Makor Foundation for Israeli Films and the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund ), Tal preferred to stay loyal to the style of presenting the interviews in voice-over form only. He chose his subjects from among visitors to Sachne and then interviewed them at their homes. At the editing stage he turned the interviews into monologues and juxtaposed them with footage of visits to Sachne.

The decision to create monologues differs from the approach in "Children of the Sun," where the separate interviews were edited together to sound like a conversation. "I met loads of people [at Sachne]. I began interviewing them and gradually tried to understand which stories I wanted to keep, which ones appealed to me, which ones interested me," Tal recalls.

"Ultimately, all of the stories I chose are stories of bidding farewell: farewell to a beloved person, to a parent or a homeland," he continues. "All these stories are linked to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to our human condition, to the desire to return to the Garden of Eden and to the impossibility of doing so. These are the stories that, in the end, enabled me to draw some aesthetic line, and they are all tied to the place we live in, to its history and to our personal failures."

Tal says the separation of sound and image in "Children of the Sun" and "The Garden of Eden" allowed him to create a new dimension of space and time. "This way, the film does not take place only within the link between the image and sound, but rather contains several time levels. On one level we see them bathing and doing what they're doing. And on the other level, they are talking about what happened once. And this creates some kind of dialectic that interests me, some defamiliarization and viewing experience that I thought could be more interesting, draws you in more to listen to them. Because their consciousness is somewhere else - with the husband who died, the country they left, the brother who was killed - it's like it opens cinema up to more expanses of time and place. I felt that instead of generating some sort of confusion, this separation actually creates attentiveness."

Rules of the shoot

The film's beautiful cinematography by Daniel Kedem shows the site's visitors engaged in activities, or in frozen portraits, looking straight to camera. Kedem brings his camera close, studies the sun and the light falling on the day-trippers' exposed skin, and lets the viewer's gaze linger.

"We had a lot of rules for the shoot," Tal notes. "For example, that the camera does not shift from the tripod. It looks for a long time at the same thing, is in no rush to go anywhere; there's no need to chase after any story. For most of the film, the camera does not move at all; it's locked. The more static it was, the better it worked. It let us play more, position things and arrange them. It allowed me to choose what to shoot and how, without becoming a slave to the moment. The camera was also very close to people, so we could feel close to them. We didn't use a telephoto lens, we didn't watch them like animals from a distance, but rather sat right with them. It isn't easy, and you pay a price for it because sometimes people don't agree to be filmed when the camera is sitting half a meter from them. But it has many advantages."

Tal, who teaches film at Sapir College near Sderot, has also, for the past two years, been coediting (with Anat Even ) an online magazine called Takriv (Close-up ) that critiques documentaries.

"For a long time we felt that a lot of films are being made here, but there is no reference to the documentary as a medium that is worthy of a serious aesthetic discussion of art," he told Haaretz in February 2011 after the magazine was launched. "All the references here to documentary works are sociological or political and generally treat these films as journalism, and not as works of art that have a

Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov