Israel Seen Through the Prism of Home Movies

WATCH: Filmmaker Arik Bernstein has rescued hundreds of collections of old home movies to paint a multifaceted picture of 20th-century Israel - as caught on tape by everyday people.

The Eastman Kodak Company developed their standard 8mm film during the Great Depression and released it to the market in 1932. Simpler to use and less expensive than the 16mm format that came before it, 8mm was an immediate hit - fueling the new craze of home movies in America, Europe and beyond.

Sylvia and Herb Bernstein got married in Pennsylvania in 1937. For wedding gifts, there was the usual fare of tablecloths, vases and luggage - but also one brand new 8mm camera. The young couple set out filming: They captured their neighbors in their hometown of Philadelphia, their move to Chicago and their new friends there, and the birth of their two sons.

And then, in 1948, the Bernsteins filmed themselves getting on a boat to Palestine - and, several weeks later, walking down the gangway and into their new lives. The last of the Bernstein sons, Arik, was born in Haifa in 1952. The 8mm caught that on camera, too, as it did all the birthday parties, scouts celebrations, school graduations and army initiations that came after.

Fast forward to 2003, when Arik, who grew up to be a professional filmmaker, started wondering what he might find if he collected and went through other families' 8mm films.

He put out ads in local town papers, signs in kibbutzim and moshavim, and generally got the word out that they were looking for Israeli home movies, from the early 1900s up until the 1970s. The response was tremendous, with hundreds of boxes of film rolls people had dug out of locked drawers, damp crates and attics arriving on their doorstep.

"Mostly, the films were very boring," admits Arik. "There is a lot of 'Here is Aunt Berta getting in the family's new car. And here is Berta getting out of the car.' That was about 80 percent of the material." But from among the over 600 hours of film received, there were also gems.

And it's those gems that make up "Israel: A Home Movie," one of the most buzzed-about Israeli documentaries premiering at the Jerusalem Film Festival this week. The film, which was shown to packed audiences on Friday and Sunday, will be opening soon in wide release. A longer television series using and expanding on the footage shown in the film is also in the works, says Arik.

There are images of soldiers kissing their mothers goodbye - for what will turn out to be the last time. There are images of war. And then another war. A citrus farmer films his Palestinian neighbors fleeing their homes in 1948. A wealthy Iraqi banker films his family in the transit camp. Yemenites are seen upon arrival in the 1950s, white robes flowing. Children are seen playing in the big snow of 1951.

A man films his attractive girlfriend frolicking on the beach - the sunk Irgun's Altalena ship burning in the background. Ladies dressed up in the fur coats brought over from Europe film themselves strolling down Dizengoff in Tel Aviv. A father gets his daughter waving happily at the camera, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's car rolling down the Jerusalem road behind.

Watch a clip of the video (in Hebrew)

"People want to be part of a larger story," says Arik. "And also, they wanted to get rid of this stuff. No one has the 8mm projectors anymore." Now is the last opportunity to collect these images, he stresses, as the film deteriorates over time, and the younger generations are less and less inclined to preserve it.

After spending close to a decade collecting the material, during which director Lilti spent 340 days in the editing room going through it, digitalizing it and whittling it down, Arik and his team then sat down to watch the films together with the families of those who had sent them in - recording their reactions. It is this reminiscing that forms the audio of the movie.

"The whole idea here is there is no one Israeli narrative," concludes Arik. "This is no official history. It's not a left-wing look at history, or a right-wing look. These are personal histories - little moments that make up a whole, and show something of who we are."