Once Upon a Time in Iran, and Other Israeli Tales

The Docaviv Tel Aviv film festival spotlights the forgotten, pre-revolutionary period when Israelis and Iranians wined and dined together and exchanged intelligence secrets.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Before Iran became Israel’s No. 1 archenemy, thousands of Israelis stationed in Tehran lived quite the life there.

Dan Shadur’s film “Before the Revolution,” premiering at the Docaviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv this week, takes an insider’s look at this dolce vita that came to an abrupt end in 1979, when under threat to their lives, Israelis were forced to evacuate Iranian territory.

Shadur, who spent his childhood years in Tehran, where his parents served as envoys, tracked down many of their old friends and acquaintances – among them former Mossad agents, diplomats, contractors and security guards. Their shared recollections, letters, photographs and home movies bring back to life this almost-forgotten pre-revolutionary period when Israelis and Iranians wined and dined together, engaged in business dealings and exchanged intelligence secrets.

Shadur’s 80-minute documentary, with English subtitles, opens with a former security guard recounting the incredulous scene of hundreds of Iranians gathered on the streets to watch a film about Israel’s famed Entebbe raid being projected on the outside wall of the embassy. At the part where Israeli soldiers storm the Ugandan airport, he recalls, the Iranians burst into wild applause. But later on, when the Israeli commando leader Yoni Netanyahu (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother) is gunned down, they collectively erupt into tears. Who could have imagined, he asks, that just a few months later, he and other once-admired Israelis would be forced out of the country “with our tails between our legs”?

Shadur’s deceased mother, the filmmaker recalls, once described those years in Iran as the best period in their lives. A husband and wife, former kibbutzniks and old friends of his parents, talk about their initial amazement at being assigned a maid who “washed all our clothes by hand.” Salaries were so high and the cost of living so low, other members of this former Israeli expat community testify, that they were eventually able to save enough money during their stints in Iran to purchase spacious apartments in Tel Aviv with no need to take out mortgages.

All this may explain why many preferred to ignore the increasingly evident signs around them of a grassroots uprising against the Shah and to live in their “bubble,” as one woman described it, making their way out of the country, often clandestinely, in just the nick of time. As an Israeli passenger on one of the last flights to leave Iran recalls, the plane “absolutely shook” from all the celebratory jumping and clapping that took place when it safely entered Turkish airspace.

“Before the Revolution” is one of 12 films competing in the 15th annual Docaviv festival, which will showcase 100 documentaries from around the world, from May 2 through May 11 – most of the screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

“Soldier on the Roof” provides another insider account, but of a very different type of Jewish community: the settlers of Hebron. Dutch-Israeli filmmaker Esther Hertog spent three years living among the several hundred heavily guarded Jewish families of Hebron documenting their daily lives. To her credit, the fact that the story is told entirely from their perspective and that of the soldiers watching over them does not at all make it one-sided.

Generally suspicious of the media, the Jewish families of Hebron provided Hertog with unusual access. But while she lets them stand before the camera and ramble on (usually in American-accented Hebrew) about the case for Jewish claims to the city with little interruption, the lens does not lose sight in the background of the city’s 120,000 other Arab residents often being stopped, frisked and ordered to hand over identification papers, so that the safety of this small yet vocal group is ensured.

As this 80-minute English subtitled film reveals, daily life is anything but normal in this contested biblical city where the army is out in full force to manage what often seem like cat-and-mouse games gone out of control.

As a housewife prepares a meal for her family in the kitchen, she remarks to the filmmaker that she can see straight into the kitchen of her neighbor across the way, an Arab woman. But no, she responds to Hertog’s obvious question with an embarrassed laugh, they have never once interacted. “We just ignore each other,” she says.

The film opens with Hertog trying to get a Jewish settler to speak his mind to the camera, but he can’t because every time he opens his mouth, a few Arab residents of the town surround him and purposely make noise to drown him out. The resulting standoff turns out to carry great symbolism.

For many members of the Jewish community of Hebron, as “Soldier on the Roof” suggests, ideology seems to trump all else. Little else can explain how a mother of 11 children is happy to go on and on explaining her connection to the land but gets stumped when she’s asked how old her eldest son is. Or why a couple would be so cruel as to name their innocent newborn Tifferet Yisrael (“Glory of Israel”).

Perhaps the most telling moment in the film, the obvious inspiration for the title, comes when a rather naïve-looking soldier invites the filmmaker to join him on one of the rooftops so that she can get a better view of the Arab section of the city. After questioning her about where the film will be shown, he confides: “The Arabs, to tell you the truth, they live in terrible conditions.”

A more upbeat take on Jewish-Arab relations emerges from “Dove’s Cry,” a film by Ganit Ilouz. The 52-minute documentary (without English subtitles) follows Hadeel, a young, independent-minded Arabic teacher from the Wadi Ara region, over the course of a year as she interacts with children and staff at a Jewish elementary school in Hod Hasharon. Unlike “Soldier on the Rooftop,” this film provides a bit of hope for Jewish-Arab coexistence. We see Hadeel and her sixth-graders singing together songs in Arabic, we watch her field their questions about Muslim dating practices, and we witness the joy on her face when they surprise her with a birthday party as she enters the classroom.

But the more powerful moments in the film come when these good relations are put to the test. That happens when an angry student reduces Hadeel to tears by calling her a “stinky Arab.” It happens again when a group of parents protest her decision to have the children prepare model mosques as a class assignment, and yet again when she tells her principal the truth about how she feels when the siren goes off on Holocaust Memorial Day and when everyone around her is singing the national anthem, “Hatikvah.”

“I suddenly feel that I don’t belong to the place where I was born,” she remarks.

But when her sister urges her to quit her job and take a teaching position in an Arab school closer to home, Hadeel confesses that only in a Jewish school does she feel that she is “doing something” to contribute to society.

A scene from "Before the Revolution."
A scene from "Before the Revolution."

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