Through a Lens, Gently

Tamar Tal's documentary on the grandmother and grandson who run Tel Aviv's historied Pri-Or photo shop explores what binds them as well as what divides them. This week, it took first place at the DocAviv festival.

Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, near Ben Yehuda. The sign above the entrance is long gone, but the front window still gives pride of place to an enormous black and white photograph of a young woman hovering in the air, her legs folded mid-jump, a broad smile on her face. As you enter the Pri-Or photo store, the meticulous portraits of "the nation's grandees" adorn the wall to your right, and to your left is displayed a series of postcards with photographs of Israel of yesteryear. Miriam Weissenstein, who for years presided over this Tel Aviv institution with her late husband, the photographer Rudi Weissenstein, sits at one of the tables, staring in silence at the entrance. Behind her, her grandson Ben Peter is animatedly discussing equipment that will be moving to the new place, the thickness of shelves and other matters.

Last Monday the historied photo shop, which sells prints of Rudi Wassenstein's works and also prints customers' photos, moved from 30 Allenby Street to its new temporary residence at 5 Tchernichovsky Street. This landmark institution, whose drawers hold some 1 million negatives documenting the state's foundational moments, is being moved after 71 years, in the name of another lucrative real estate deal. The building was not on the municipal preservation list, so the photo store is moving until it receives space in the new six-story building slated to arise at the site.

Miriam Weissenstein
Tamar Tal

Tamar Tal came to the store for the first time eight years ago with her photography classmates, a year after she'd seen an exhibition of Weissenstein's works. She returned to the store often, and a few years later made a short documentary film about it, about the woman who runs it, about the state's refusal to support the place, and about the bleak future awaiting when Weissenstein could no longer bear the burden. Her film, "The Iron Lady and the Photo House," was screened at the 2007 DocAviv documentary film festival in the student competition.

She met Ben Peter at that screening. "He told me he was interested in photography, and I thought to myself, 'Hey, here's a new bud of family interest - there can be a new chapter for this place!' And then, after a while, when Ben called and told me he had begun to work at the store and was going to renovate it, I realized this film wasn't finished, but rather was only beginning," Tal said last week during a conversation in the store's backyard, amid piles of empty crates patiently awaiting the move.

"I filmed that renovation," Tal says. "Miriam wasn't here, and when the renovation was done, she came to the store and was totally shocked, as if Ben had decimated her history. She saw he had hung all the portraits [the framed photographs of Israeli personalities that had been displayed there for decades], and the first thing she said to him was: 'Ben-Gurion with his back to Begin? Tell me, have you lost your mind?' For me, this was a signal that a very special relationship was going to emerge, with his attempt to bring something new, and her attempt to preserve everything in place."

Old versus new

Tal's new film, "Life in Stills," produced by Barak Heymann, deals with the complicated and moving relationship between Weissenstein and Peter. This week, it won first prize in the Israeli competition at the DocAviv international festival in Tel Aviv. The film will air on the Yes Docu channel on May 23. The film starts with Weissenstein and Peter sitting in the photo shop, talking. In honor of Tel Aviv's centenary, Peter suggests they offer customers old-style studio photographs. "If they come, they won't leave. Such pests," Weissenstein replies.

"Everyone has become a pest for you. I don't know what's with you lately. What's going on with you? Customers are sitting here, wanting to buy pictures, and you say loudly, 'When will they go? Why are they stuck here?'" Peter says angrily.

"And they heard?" she asks.

"Yes, everyone can hear you, Grandma, you're the only one who can't hear," he replies loudly.

"What do they want?" Weissenstein asks.

"To buy maybe three pictures for NIS 1,500," he says.

"They paid?" she inquires.

"No, they didn't place an order yet. They'll pay when they order," Peter replies.

"Then, pests," his grandmother says, conclusively.

Peter, 34, says, in an interview: "As a boy I remember we used to visit, but my aunts and uncles always perceived this place as somewhere to avoid, as a kind of trauma. They said Grandpa and Grandma were very harsh, the business always came first, and I think they would force them to work here during school breaks. It was a nightmare for them, because my grandmother would punish them and yell at them; she was very strong and domineering. Everyone really loves the place, but the relationship with her was tense."

Throughout the film, Weissenstein, 97, does not give Peter an easy time, is reluctant to trust his judgment and by no means tries to be nice, but he responds with boundless patience, gently or matter-of-factly, and mainly with heartwarming love. She is a tough businesswoman whose loyalty is entirely to the business and her set ways, whereas he is gentle and likeable, energetic and enterprising, trying to infuse new life into the photo shop and adapt it to the changing world.

Peter began to grow closer to his grandmother when he left his parents' Ra'anana home and moved to Tel Aviv, he said this week . Feeling lonely in the city, he would pop in to see his grandmother, and she took a great interest in his life. Their bond was strengthened by the fact that his grandmother had become closer to his mother, who helped at the store and mounted an exhibition of Rudi Weissenstein's photos at the Reading power station, in Tel Aviv, in 2002.

At a certain point the film reveals the family's tragedy (spoiler alert): In 2003 Ben's father, Ami Peter, murdered his wife, Michal Peter, Weissenstein's beloved daughter and the mother of Ben, and then committed suicide.

"I grew apart from Grandma because she would call Dad 'the murderer,' and didn't filter that in front of us," Peter says today. "She would talk very badly about him, in a way that made me feel: 'Get out of my face, don't come near me.' It went on for several months, and only after things calmed down a bit did I begin to visit her. She asked me to help her with store-related matters, and then, from a place of the loss, and because I knew my mother had been helping her, it drew me in. That's how our relationship was forged."

He began visiting the store more frequently six years ago, helping his grandmother produce a book of Rudi Weissenstein's photographs and computerizing the business. She was in no hurry to trust the energetic youth, dealing him buckets of criticism over his contribution to the store and his personal life. Yet in 2007 she took him on as a business partner, and two years ago, when she turned 95 and her health began to deteriorate, she allowed him to start running the store.

"Only then did she let go and say she would like me to carry on the place, that she trusted me," he says. "We had a very emotional conversation about a year ago, when she told me that I would inherit the business. I was very moved.

"My mother came to work with her when she was 50 and had decided to repair their relationship. She helped her with the exhibition, helped her make contacts overseas, and together they tried to sell the photo archive and find a backer [to invest in taking care of the archive]," he says. "She started something big that was cut short in its prime, and I unconsciously continued it, perhaps because I was unconsciously seeking the maternal bond I had suddenly lost. A generation disappeared on me. I think that, among other things, I badly wanted to hear about my mother, to talk about her, about her feelings for her, the grief. But that didn't work out so well because Grandma always pushes my father into these conversations."

"When Ben wasn't there and I filmed Miriam alone, Michal and the trauma would come up," Tal says. "It fell on me without my intending it to. Because how can you even touch something like this in a film without it becoming sensational? That really scared me. I remember I didn't even want to tell Barak, the producer, about it, because I was afraid he would get excited and say, 'Wow, what a crazy story.'

"So I downplayed it at first, but very gradually I came to realize that it is an essential part of their relationship - it is background, something that connects them but also separates them - and that I couldn't ignore it. It was hard for me, because it was very important to me to protect them, and I thought, why should I bring something to the surface that if it weren't for the film there would be no reason to bring up? But I slowly began to feel that Miriam found relief in being able to tell these things, and then I approached Ben and told him I wanted to tell this, to deepen the relationship in the film, and he cooperated with me."

Peter says that after his parents died, he and his brother turned down most requests from the media to discuss the case. "We said no to everyone, because this was not an ordinary case of domestic violence. My father had been sick, he had had severe clinical depression, with medication and everything, for three years. We didn't agree to talk because we didn't want them to stamp this case with the stereotype of a battering man who murdered his wife and committed suicide, and that's what they were looking for."

Tal's film made him feel safe enough to address the subject in front of a camera for the first time, "because the film's stance is loving, protective, knowing and respectful," he says. "What was most important to Tamar throughout the film was what we felt. So yes, it required additional effort on my part, to raise difficult questions, and to open up in front of the camera. But I did it and I told Tamar I was grateful she got me to talk about these things and documented it. There is a lot of healing in this, in talking. And now, after eight years, I feel it's the right distance for dealing with things. In her hands it never felt exposing."

When he watched the film for the first time, about a month ago, "it flooded me with this, exactly like at the memorial service, which is a very loaded time every year. When I see the film, my parents' place in it is very clear to me, mainly due to my and my grandmother's bond with my mother, and the loss is very tangible. The next day I rode my bike, listened to music and cried in the streets. I suddenly felt, perhaps because of the film, that I truly forgive my father. I felt I suddenly understood everything, feel everything. It expanded my heart so much that I felt there was room there now for him as well, no matter what he was."