For three years, director Dan Shadur kept his attention and camera closely focused on his country’s prime minister, making the 2018 documentary “King Bibi: The Life and Performances of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
But his lens was pointed in the other direction in this year’s “The Pandemic Logs” – a crazy quilt of 10 vignettes by the country’s leading documentary filmmakers recording their experiences during the coronavirus crisis.
And where did the camera find Shadur as COVID-19 fears kept Israelis under a stay-at-home order? Sitting on the living room sofa next to his pregnant wife, watching King Bibi himself lecture the people on proper hand washing and tissue using, and chiding them if they got near Grandma and Grandpa. “It’s a matter of life and death,” Netanyahu said sternly.
Incredulity covers Shadur’s face as he watches this performance once again, a performance, he jokes in the film, where Netanyahu “is the only show in town still running.”
“When we released ‘King Bibi’ on the eve of the first election in 2019 … we felt as if the film was marking the end of an era,” he told Haaretz.
Less than a year and a half, three general elections and three criminal indictments later, there Netanyahu was on Shadur’s screen, still prime minister, an act of political survival that even his cinematic biographer couldn’t quite believe.
“But no other politician in this country wants power so much … so when things aren’t looking good for Netanyanhu, he buys himself time,” Shadur says. “When you do that, you know you always have a chance that something will happen in your favor. And that’s what seems to happen.”
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Like Shadur, the other directors’ contributions to the project feature their experience of the COVID crisis; how it affected their lives personally and professionally. Shadur’s drama centers around his pregnant wife as the couple worried about the birth of their child during the pandemic; they had their share of Lamaze classes on Zoom.
“It was like going back to film school, doing everything by yourself – with no crew or other team members to support you,” Shadur says. “I had to relearn how to do that, and I had to get used to the idea of filming myself in my home, without being embarrassed or self-conscious. It took some time.”
Shadur and two of the other directors are based in Tel Aviv, but the documentary includes stories from across Israel. Anan Barakat chronicles his life in the largely Arab city of Nazareth. Another filmmaker, on Kibbutz Barur Hayil on the Gaza border, follows a farmer who, when he can no longer sell his produce to restaurants, must deliver cartons of vegetables to people’s homes in the center of the country.
There are also contributions from Israeli directors living abroad, one in a small Italian village, another in Brooklyn, both coping with the extra layer of facing a health crisis in a foreign country.
Shock and fear
The project was pulled together by producer Liran Atzmor, who is responsible for some of Israel’s most acclaimed documentaries in recent years. The initiative came from the Makor Foundation, which backs independent Israeli documentaries, and it’s being supported and shown by satellite television company Yes – just as the country eases out of strict coronavirus lockdowns.
They launched the project in the early days of the pandemic in March. “We were all in shock and fear,” Atzmor says. “Projects were coming to a halt – no one really saw an opportunity to create in this nightmare.”
Under normal circumstances, it’s doubtful Atzmor could have gotten so many prominent directors to take part in a project. He says it was a miracle that “not only the best documentary directors in Israel agreed to do this, but that so many of them, who are used to controlling their own creations from beginning to end, agreed – for the first time – to put their footage into someone else’s hands and allow it to be edited without their supervision.”
Amid the travel restrictions during the various lockdowns, Atzmor says it was clear from the start that an innovative format was warranted – hence the decision to intersperse the vignettes instead of devoting a full episode to each director. The series is organized chronologically; we see each director’s household move through the spring holidays – whether Purim, Passover, Independence Day or Ramadan.
Director Avigail Sperber’s contribution focuses heavily on the holidays, exploring the themes of religion and identity that were central to her last film. Sperber is the daughter of Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Sperber, winner of the 1992 Israel Prize for Jewish studies, and his wife, Hannah – the filmmaker is one of their 10 children.
Sperber’s life has taken her in a radically different direction – she’s a single mother of two sons in Tel Aviv and the founder of Bat Kol – an organization for religious women who struggle to reconcile their sexual orientation with their traditional religious ways. Despite the different direction, Sperber remains close to her parents.
In her contribution to “The Pandemic Logs,” Sperber holds Zoom conversations with her father in his home in the Old City of Jerusalem, church bells ringing in the background. They discuss everything from the feelings of his Arab neighbors as he burns bread before Passover, to the questions on Jewish law he must field from women whose marital relations are disrupted when they can’t use the ritual bath during the pandemic.
“I was very happy to get Liran’s call about the project,” Sperber says. “I’m working on a series about women in prison and a few other projects in different stages, and suddenly, everything stopped. We had to be at home, and my kids were no longer at school – and I’m a single mother with two kids at home. Everything was on hold, so it was nice to have something to work on.”
Sperber was surprised to find that, although she couldn’t attend synagogue or the Passover seder with her family, in some ways her religious practice intensified under lockdown. For the first time, she took part in daily prayers – after members of her congregation launched a morning prayer quorum via Zoom – wrapping herself in a shawl her parents had given her, holding her prayer book and davening in front of her laptop. Her fellow worshippers were in the grid right in front of her.
“For me, taking part in a prayer service every single morning was something very different. It was never something I was able to do because I was always busy in the morning getting the children off to school,” she says.
“It was exciting to see people each morning. Also, the dynamic was different when men and women were in the same squares in front of each other. The practice of not counting women as part of the minyan seemed particularly absurd.”
In Yael Kipper and Ronen Zaretzky’s household, the first family members you see are their eight rescue dogs, as Mom and Dad feed them and introduce them one by one. Kipper, Zaretzky and their three children spent lockdown in their home perched on a mountain in the hamlet of Harashim in the north – naturally isolated with a majestic view.
During lockdown and the worst of the restrictions, “We felt a lot freer than my friends who live in Tel Aviv,” Kipper says. “My 100-meter radius was beautiful, I could go into the forest with the dogs, I had lots of space – and the virus fell in the best season of the year in terms of the weather.”
Kipper thought long and hard before agreeing to be part of the project. “I really didn’t like the idea of exposing or photographing my family, especially my kids,” she says.
The turning point was the chance to share her passion for veganism, rescuing abandoned pets and preserving the environment. These were the motivations behind their family’s decision to leave Tel Aviv and move north a decade ago.
“I live my life with a terrible feeling about the way people treat animals and the environment. In all of this corona craziness, I’ve been feeling a bit of hope that now people will wake up and understand that it has to stop,” she says in the film.
In a touching scene, Kipper’s daughter Dror, a sensitive 11-year-old, talks about her determination to convince others to turn to veganism. Her mother asks her whether she too believes that COVID-19 may help move the world’s thinking in that direction.
“I don’t think so,” Dror responds, crying as she explains how her classmates “don’t respect” her choices. But determined to do what she can, she thumbtacks a handwritten petition to a wall in her moshav, asking her neighbors to commit to giving up meat in the wake of the pandemic.
“It was hard for me not to be the one in control” of scenes like this, Kipper says. “I don’t think I would have trusted anyone else to do it – I was literally putting my children in his hands,” she adds, marveling at Atzmor’s ability to deal with 10 directors. “If they were all as demanding as I was, I honestly don’t know how he managed it.”
Atzmor says the series may not be the project’s final configuration – he’s considering pulling the materials together into a feature-length documentary, though he’s pleased with the series and is glad it’s out while the coronavirus is still part of people's lives.
“We were determined to get it done – to turn it around and broadcast it very fast, because so much can happen so quickly in this country,” he says. “We knew this was something that would soon be a distant memory.”