A 'Collage' of Small Stories

The decision to make a nonjudgmental film was a conscious one, says "Children of the Sun" director Ran Tal, who also says he is surprised by the documentary's success.

The decision to make a nonjudgmental film was a conscious one, says "Children of the Sun" director Ran Tal, who also says he is surprised by the documentary's success. First, because the film had no publicity or marketing - there was no budget for that - and also because it is a documentary "based on archival material and with no heroes."

Tal was born on Kibbutz Beit Hashita to parents who were also born there. His grandparents, who came to Palestine from Europe, were among the founders of the kibbutz, "but neither I nor my brother or sister live there now." He left the kibbutz at the age of 22, shortly after his father, David Tal, was killed in a car accident. His mother, Hanna Tal, 72, still lives on the kibbutz. "I did not leave because of pain or anger," he says. "I think I understood from the age of 16 that this wasn't working."

After leaving he spent time in New York before returning to study film and television at Tel Aviv University. He has produced and directed features, documentaries and television films - including "Malka lev adom" ("Skin Deep") with Etgar Keret, "Derekh ben tsvi 67" ("67 Ben-Zvi Road," which is the address of the Institute of Forensic Medicine) and "Beit halomotai" ("My Dream House") - for which he has won local and international awards. "Children of the Sun" won the Wolgin Prize for best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July of this year.

The idea for the film gelled seven years ago, Tal relates, and it took three years to make. "After the birth of my children - Mika, who is 10, and Lior, who is seven - I began to want to investigate and understand my childhood on the kibbutz. I have no childhood memories, and that led me to delve into the memories of others."

What do you mean about having no childhood memories?

Tal: "Just that. People are always astounded when I tell them I don't remember a thing, but I don't."

"Children of the Sun" is thus a journey into the depths of personal and collective memory, in an attempt to reconstruct it. "I understood that it was impossible to say anything absolute about what happened in the past. So Ron Goldman - who was born on Kibbutz Nahshonim and is the film's editor - and I decided to let a few people reminisce and describe a personal moment. Each of the interviewees told a small story, not the 'big story,' and this created a kind of collage, or Rashomon, of stories that we stitched together into a narrative."

Tal and Goldman - who was awarded the best editing prize for a documentary at this year's Jerusalem Film Festival - started to interview and record their families: "I interviewed my mother, my aunts and uncles and my extended family. Goldman set up interviews with his mother, Edna Rosenthal, her husband [writer and journalist] Ruvik Rosenthal, and his aunt. I also interviewed people whose writing about the kibbutz had impressed me."

Why the so-called parents' generation?

"First of all, I don't like dealing with myself declaratively; I don't like being out in front. Second, my parents' generation, in contrast to my contemporaries or to the founders' generation, went through the whole cycle of life on kibbutz: They were born there, raised there and raised their own children there. I think they lived the kibbutz life in its radical form: They experienced it as pure communism. Ideologically, it was an almost religious period."

The guiding idea, Tal says, was to bring to life the world of the past - "to translate the concept 'kibbutz' into observation of nature, understanding of the period and people's memories. I wanted to stay completely inside that, not to depart from it. I also thought that if the speakers were not seen on-screen, they would be less concrete, so what they said could also become the viewers' story."

The interviews piled up and the archival footage was collected. Tal admits that it was only in the editing process that they realized that the film would focus on the tension between kibbutz and family. "It took us a long time to grasp that this is the most meaningful conflict and that the kibbutz story has to be told through its prism. Everything revolves around the family - it is always the source of our greatest anguish. The radicalism of the kibbutz lay in its battle against the bourgeois family. From the kibbutz viewpoint, the family was a form of conflict of interest, and in effect they tried to abolish it."

So your choice of amateur family films was a form of provocation?

"We always photograph the same events and ceremonies when we are with the family: birthdays, first grade, bar mitzvah. Without noticing it, we create a family history that consists of moments of happiness, so that if someone looks at our album of photographs he will see what a happy family we were. Which is of course not true - because we don't photograph the moments of sadness and suffering. On the one hand, there is something in these images that is extremely staged and artificial, while on the other hand this is our intimacy."

In contrast to the naive and pastoral images are the interviewees' stories, some of which are appalling. "I did not want to make a black-and-white film that would suggest that things back then were either terrible or wonderful," Tal explains. "When I was a boy, the discourse about the kibbutz was propagandist. We were constantly told that this was a marvelous place to grow up in - which was of course not true: It simply served the political needs of the Labor movement, the kibbutz and Zionism. Twenty years later there was a turnabout in the attitude toward the kibbutz, and it too served political needs: The kibbutz was now perceived as hell, a freak show, a collection of brutes who abused their children. Things were removed from their historical context, and the kibbutz and its members were demonized.

"Ron Goldman and I were aware of this. We looked for the emotional tone in which we would be able to speak without fear about the most painful and most authentic things: to clarify how people sincerely feel about their childhood, about the way they were raised and about their children. Whether they still believe in the way of life to which they devoted everything. We chose to come to them without a patronizing or judgmental attitude; to come to them out of love, compassion, acceptance and empathy. Like in a family."

Did you make a critical movie about kibbutz?

"I have a hard time with the cheapening of the term 'critical.' Nowadays every kid is 'critical.' But it's clear that this is a film that does not support the method and tries to grapple with its very problematic emotional implications."