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Why Has the Six-Day War Been All but Overlooked by Israeli Cinema?

Despite all the victory photo albums that flooded Israel after the 1967 war, Israeli filmmakers found it hard to deal with the subject

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Scene from "Avanti Popolo."
Scene from "Avanti Popolo."Credit: Yoav Kush
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

What was it about the war that caused Israeli filmmakers to remain silent?

I was 20 years old back then, lacking any political awareness, all that interested me was cinema. Immediately after the Six-Day War, a week after I left Jerusalem, I returned stricken with the euphoria that flooded Israel, and immediately went to visit the Old City and its surroundings.

Paratroops exercise in Sinai.Credit: IDF Sokesman's Office

I remember the amazement at the beauty and the emotions that took hold of me as I arrived as a wanted guest at the place that almost my entire life seemed to be an imaginary territory, without my being aware that from this point on, the city where I lived had changed completely, and my land too. And now 50 years later we not only celebrate the 69th Independence Day but also the jubilee of that same war and the “unification” of Jerusalem. A jubilee of being a conquering nation, after which we cannot know where the future may lead us. Or maybe we do know but are afraid to admit it.

The presentation of the wars in Israeli cinema is a matter for in-depth study, but the presentation of the Six-Day War in this context is unique. Even though it is engraved in the national memory as a legend and source of pride and glory, the ensemble of films about the war were mostly produced in the years right afterward, without having a continuing part of the history of Israeli cinema, as was the case with the War of Independence, the War of Attrition and the first Lebanon war.

Scene from "Avanti Popolo" (1986), most acclaimed Israeli film set during Six-Day War.

Does this say something about the difficulty the national collective memory, as it is presented in the rest of Israeli cinema, has in dealing with heroic myths, their implications and results? Is this why the cinema preferred to avoid that war? Every Israeli movie produced since then that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the injustice of the occupation of course touches on the deepest foundations of the memory of the Six-Day War, but since the beginning of the 1970s, except for one case which we will discuss later, no Israeli feature film has dealt with this war, its results and implications.

I have spoken of Israeli feature films because one of the exceptional aspects representing this phenomenon is that most of the films on the Six-Day War, which were produced soon afterwards, were documentaries, and the handful of stories produced about it, with a few isolated exceptions, were minor, and sometimes even less important than that. These documentary films fit in with the flood of records and coffee-table victory albums that came after the war, and were even screened in the theaters with official ceremony. Just six weeks after the war, the film “Six Days Forever,” by Yitzhak Herbst and Yaakov Hameiri, came out almost immediately after that, “Three Hours in June” by Ilan Eldad.

The government’s public relations authorities produced “Six Days” in 1968, directed by Alfred Steinhardt and Yigal Efrati (and even included battle scenes that were reenacted using IDF soldiers). In 1969 Micha Shagrir directed “The War after the War,” which, because of its ideology, was much more discouraging that the preceding films, which glorified the great victory and sometimes even added a broader historical context, but a tendentious and superficial one, in line with the spirit of the age.

As for feature films, the situation there was no less deficient. Only five months after the end of the war, the film “Is Tel Aviv Burning?” (also known by the name “60 Hours To Suez”), directed by Kobi Jaeger, combined archive clips and a multi-character plot in an amateurish way, telling four different stories set in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the banks of the Suez Canal.

It is not an accident that the movie was almost completely forgotten, like many other feature films produced after the war, including the ridiculous action film “Sinai Commandos,” directed by Raphael Nussbaum in 1968, or a curiosity, “Five Days in Sinai,” starring Ze’ev Revach and Assi Dayan, which was released the same year. The film was an Italian-Israeli co-production directed by the unknown, untalented Maurizio Lucidi.

Assi Dayan, son of Moshe, becomes a movie star

A sign of the times was the cinematic version of Moshe Shamir’s book and play “He Walked Through the Fields” (1967), the movie that made Assi Dayan a star and the symbol of the handsome sabra, to which was added a prologue and epilogue that transported Shamir’s story from its setting, the War of Independence, to the Six-Day War.

Yet there were three feature films that stepped away from this cinematic wilderness, and the gap between them and the myths on which they were based was vast. “Every Bastard a King” by Uri Zohar (1968) tried, with the aid of a packed script and overly frenetic camera work, to document the Israeli male experience in times of peace and war, and even if the result was problematic in many ways, “Every Bastard a King” was a film that aroused interest, and still does.

A better film, and in my opinion one of the best movies in the first two decades of Israeli film, was “Siege” (1969). The only film by the Italian director Gilberto Tofano, which tells the story of a war widow (Gila Almagor, in one of her best performances). Her dead husband’s friends besiege her private life, in particular when a new man enters it. Tofano’s direction, the cinematography by David Gurfinkel and the acting of Yehoram Gaon (who also did excellent work in “Every Bastard a King”) and Dahn Ben Amotz alongside Almagor, all made “Siege” an intelligent, mature, emotional and unique film in contemporary cinema.

But the best and most important of the Six-Day War films was made only in 1986, 19 years after the war. It was “Avanti Popolo,” directed and written by Rafi Bukai. The film took place in the Sinai on the last day of the war and told the story of two Egyptian soldiers, one an actor and the other a farm boy, who just want to make it home safely.

Based on this story, Bukai created one of the most complex allegories produced here, and with a wonderfully constructed script he created a film filled with humanity, emotion, grace and humor, which showed the absurd aspects of all wars through the local, ongoing historical context. “Avanti Popolo” is also worth noting for the performance of Salim Dau as one of the Egyptian soldiers, one the greatest acting displays in Israeli cinema.

With the exception of “Avanti Popolo,” the Six-Day War seems to be a subject that was not to be touched, in contrast to Israel’s other wars. This speaks to the national memory’s inability to wrap itself around the war, or, possibly, around the shift from this war to the Yom Kippur War six years later.

I would hope that an Israeli film would touch on it and its ambivalence as an Israeli myth and as the historical source of the abyss on whose threshold we have been standing since. I would hope, too, that among the many Israeli films set in Jerusalem, at least one would not ignore the city’s significance as a divided, explosive arena, and not just as an attractive, even exotic, location for filming. (Only Eran Kolirin’s “Beyond the Mountains and Hills” touched on this subject recently, but I wish for a film that would do so with much greater strength.)

For now, let’s celebrate. Or at least those of us who believe that the jubilee of the Six-Day War is a reason to celebrate, and that Jerusalem is indeed unified.

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