Pre-state Israel's 'First Propaganda Movie' Gets New Lease on Life

The long-lost film 'The Life of the Jews in the Land of Israel' will be screened in a new digital edition in Jerusalem.

For 80 years, the movie “The Life of the Jews in the Land of Israel: 1913” was thought to be lost. The film, shot in prestate Israel in 1913, disappeared during World War I. In 1975, a copy was found in a private collection in the United States. However, when the cases were opened, it transpired that the film reels had disintegrated.

For years, Yaakov Gross – a documentary film director and researcher of Israeli films – searched for the missing film, but was left with a feeling of disappointment. Nevertheless, he never stopped believing that another copy would some day be found, “a copy that would shed light on the mystery of the lost film,” he said.

In 1997 his dream came true, and a copy was found in the archives of the French National Center of Cinematography (CNC). Four boxes containing 170 reels were found in the archives of the CNC, an agency of the French Ministry of Culture. But there were no identifying marks or documentation for the films.

Gross was called in to aid with identifying the films. Armed with the program of the movie from 1913, which he had found in the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, he immediately understood that the missing movie had been found.

Now, on the centenary of the making of the movie, the Israel Film Archive at the Jerusalem Cinematheque has produced a digital version of the original using today’s most advanced technology, improving the quality of the soundtrack and images. The completely restored film will be screened next week as part of the 15th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival (on Tuesday December 3 at 6 P.M.).

Gross is excited, for a number of reasons. First, “The Life of Jews in the Land of Israel” – also called “Jewish Life in Israel” and “The Life of Jews in Palestine” – was the first movie to document the Zionist enterprise in Israel. Also, adds Gross, this was also the first Hebrew movie.

Although it’s a silent movie, the title cards and subtitles are all written in Hebrew. It’s the rare images documenting life here a hundred years ago, under Ottoman Turkish rule, that make watching the film an extraordinary experience, Gross says.

The movie was shot in Israel in April-May 1913 by the Mizrah Society from Odessa, Russia. The man behind the film was a Zionist businessman, Noah Sokolovsky, who wanted to create a movie to show the renewed settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel and screen it at the 11th Zionist Congress that year in Vienna. This made it the first “propaganda” film ever made, claims Gross.

Sokolovsky’s film crew travels from Odessa to Israel and then covers the entire land at the time. You can see Rothschild Boulevard and the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv; farmers working the fields in Hadera, the construction of the Technion in Haifa; Joseph Trumpeldor plowing lands in the Galilee with his only arm; students of the Ezra association for the study of the Hebrew language, founded by David Ben-Gurion, all dressed up; the poetess Rachel Bluwstein (better known as Rachel the Poet); the Bezalel School; the tomb of the matriarch Rachel; the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron; the Carmel winery in Rishon Letzion; and the celebrations of the Biluim (agricultural settlers) in Hadera. The Arabs living in the land at the time are intentionally missing, but you can see Jewish “farmers” in suits replacing them.

The Zionist press praised the film when it was made, and it went on to garner a large audience and popular approval from audiences throughout Europe and Russia. The Zionist Organization’s weekly, Die Welt, reported at the time on the “cinematographic filming from our new Palestine.

“The live pictures emphasize the radiance of the unbelievably large event that is happening on our ancient land. The surprising pictures come from an unexpected world,” the paper wrote.

Ha-Zefira, the first Hebrew-language newspaper in Poland, said every Jew should see the “interesting picture” and called it a “national holiday,” saying it aroused wondrous feelings for the spiritual pleasures created by the scenes of the Holy Land.