In Israel nowadays, the brand name Susita is usually uttered with a mocking smile, despite the sweet nostalgia. The old Israeli bumper sticker “A junk heap but still ahead of you” might easily have been inspired by it.
The Susita was a source of Zionist pride, born out of the delusion of an impoverished young country that was sure it could become an automotive superpower. The decision to import car parts from Britain, have unskilled workers assemble them, cover everything with fiberglass and ultimately have people drive around in this plastic box surely belongs in an Israeli hall of fame for dubious schemes.
The new film “Susita” (English title: “Desert Tested”) is by Avi Weissblei, whose previous documentaries include works that delve into Israeli symbols of bygone eras such as “A State Behind the Scenes” about the Declaration of Independence and “The Assassination” about the killing of early Zionist leader Chaim Arlosoroff. In the current work, Weissblei traces the fascinating history of the car plant that was open for business in the 1960s and ‘70s, first in Haifa and then in nearby Tirat Hacarmel.
He interviews his subjects while they’re sitting in the back seat of a Susita, their accounts revealing bits of the car’s convoluted history. And an abundance of well-edited archival material completes the picture.
Weissblei turns this business story into a drama, with two wealthy car developers vying until one crushes the other with an ambitious vision that in another time and place might have spawned a profitable and high-quality carmaker. That plant could have supported thousands of families in a developing country for many years.
The movie provides plenty of anecdotes that illustrate a lack of professionalism, such as the time when Susitas being shipped to a New York car show fell apart along the way. Then there’s the episode where, as part of the manufacturing process, chamber pots were used to mix materials that were later slathered on the cars.
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One bit of archival footage shows a man striking a Susita with a wooden plank, apparently to convince potential buyers what a strong beast it was. Still, many dozens of Susitas were completely shattered, along with their unfortunate occupants, when they were the victims of road accidents.
The particularly interesting thing about the documentary is how it shows that, yes, there really is nothing new under the sun. Corruption, fraud and big-money ties with government enabled the opening of the plant and sustained it for nearly two decades.
These things are also what ultimately led to its demise – so says the thick indictment that was filed against the man behind the Susita, Yitzhak Shubinsky, and so say many of the people interviewed in the documentary.
Shubinsky hitched the finance minister to his dream, got the state to invest millions in it, and then sold the cars at a discount to government officials and senior military officers. In return, the army and government ministries bought hundreds of his cars every year. The kind of behavior that’s routine today among politicians and prime ministers had already started back then.
“Susita”/”Desert Tested” is skillfully filmed and edited. It effectively uses music by Amit Poznansky and animation to breathe life into the talking heads and archival materials. And it presents a detailed, occasionally amusing but generally serious story about a Trabant-esque car that was manufactured by dubious methods that still pervade the business world and Israeli politics.
Still, after Weissblei tells the story of this phenomenon, toward the end of the documentary we learn that a court actually exonerated Shubinsky of all the charges against him. So was there corruption or wasn’t there? Did Shubinsky grease the wheels in the army and government ministries or not?
Weissblei leaves viewers confused. He closes the documentary on an anecdotal note, rather than shed a little light on this key question, and that’s too bad. Oh yeah, the anecdotal note. Shubinsky was killed when his fiberglass car crashed into a tree.
“Susita” (“Desert Tested”), produced and directed by Avi Weissblei, will be aired by Yes Docu.