Yom Kippur War Both Absent and Present in Israeli Cinema

How is it that only one Israeli feature film deals directly with the 1973 war and yet that most traumatic of Israeli wars has still wielded such a tremendous influence on our cinematic world? A comprehensive historical survey.

“Listen, Weinraub, this is a real war. And this time it’s ours and we’re the right age, Weinraub.” These are spoken by Ruso to his comrade-in-arms, Weinraub, as the pair wends its way up to the northern part of the country in Weinraub’s old Fiat on October 6, 1973, the day the Yom Kippur War broke out.

Weinraub and Ruso are the two main protagonists in Amos Gitai’s 2000 film “Kippur,” the first Israeli-made feature film to be set during that war. Not only did 27 years elapse before the sights of the Yom Kippur War were brought to local narrative cinema: “Kippur” was, and has remained to date, the sole locally made feature that dealt with it directly.

In the 40 years since the Yom Kippur War, however, there have been many documentary films that have focused on various aspects of it. Gitai himself made one in 1994 entitled “War Memories,” which touches on some of the same events dealt with in “Kippur.” However, in view of the importance of the 1973 war vis-a-vis Israeli life, and considering that many local movies have been made about other wars − it is surprising that “Kippur” is the only feature-length work dealing with this particular one.

“Kippur” is also an Israeli war film that is different from every other Israeli war film produced before or after it. This fact jumped out at me in particular now, when I watched Gitai’s film again after a break of a few years, and after I watched the war films made since then, among them Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” (2007‏), Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir”(‏2008‏) and Shmuel Maoz’s “Lebanon” (‏(2009‏.

Many of Gitai’s films are based on autobiographical sources; indeed, that is the case with “Kippur,” in which Liron Levo plays Gitai himself ‏(the cast members go by their real names in the film; “Weinraub” was the surname of Gitai’s father, the architect Munio Weinraub. When the war broke out, Gitai, whose mandatory service had been with the Egoz commando unit, joined up with an Israel Air Force rescue unit that operated in the Golan Heights. On one of its missions, the helicopter he was in was hit, a soldier was killed, and Gitai and the rest of his comrades were injured.

That incident was what prompted him to make “Kippur,” in which he himself is both a central dramatic component as well as a marginal one. Indeed, that contradiction symbolizes what Gitai does here: “Kippur” conducts an ongoing dialectic with the historical memories it conjures. Gitai deals here with one of the most significant events that ever took place here − an event that not only altered the course of Israeli history but also Israel’s self-perception. An event that to this day elicits the word “trauma” whenever it is mentioned. But “Kippur” also grants this preoccupation the driest, most antiheroic, anti-sentimental and factual aura of any war film produced either before it or in its wake.

The dialectical dimension of “Kippur” finds expression in Gitai’s effort to avoid bestowing upon the war the same sort of mythic, traumatic space that it takes up in local memory and consciousness. There is sometimes even a tormented romantic aspect to the latter as well, but in this film, the description of the war − from a very particular, private and even restricted angle − gives it and its memory a balanced dimension, which is deeply disturbing in the most profound way. It is not “the war,” it is another war.

Thus, aside from insinuations voiced at the beginning, “Kippur” makes no reference to the concept of “failure” that has become associated with the memory of the 1973 war; “euphoria,” which characterized the years that passed between the Six-Day War and the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, is mentioned only in passing. And more than anything, the movie makes no attempt to address the issue of the initial defeat that turned into a victory, which has given rise to a preoccupation that is generally accompanied until today by historical-emotional ambivalence.

Gitai attains his objectives by cleverly blending distance with intimacy and, mainly, by juxtaposing realism, which at times borders on dry documentation, with symbolism. These combinations are expressed, among other instances, in two of the film’s standout scenes: the one that documents in a lengthy shot the traffic jam Weinraub and Russo experience on their journey up north, which conveys the sense of disorder that prevailed at the time; and the very impressive one that depicts the helicopter crew’s desperate attempt to rescue a casualty in the mud of the Golan.

We do not see the enemy in the film and are not witnesses to any fighting. Instead, “Kippur” portrays in full the routine that follows combat, in which all that remains is to rescue the dead and the wounded − if possible. One of the outstanding features that characterizes the entire movie is the vagueness of the space within which Gitai creates; that vagueness helps him film without any sense of direction. That is, everything is in constant motion. Helicopters fly over in the sky, tanks cross the screen, but this motion never seems to be heading for a particular destination: It is movement in a place that has lost its focus, until that unseen missile hits Gitai’s helicopter, and then the reality the film created crashes onto the ground.

Still-ambivalent attitude

If there is one image in the history of Israeli cinema that represents the Yom Kippur War more than anything − it was documented in real time − it is the synagogue David Perlov photographed on the morning of Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, when he brought his camera to the window of his home and began shooting his film “Diary.” The timing was accidental; Perlov did not know war would break out a few hours later. That is why these images, of an ordinary holiday morning, ostensibly like any other Yom Kippur morning − during which, for example, a girl is seen swinging on an iron gate at the entrance to the synagogue − are so powerful.

The war’s eruption naturally influenced the course of “Diary” as a whole, which is a film about Perlov’s life from 1973-1983, just as the war itself altered the course of this place and of the cinema created in it. But why has only one feature about that war been produced here? Is it because of the still-ambivalent historical attitude people have toward its memory? Is that indeed the attitude people still have? Or, to the contrary: Does the historical absence in local cinema of films about the Yom Kippur War not symbolize the fraught presence of its memory, which casts a long shadow on the history of this place and the culture created here, to the point where it is too emotionally difficult to deal with it?

Portrayal of wars in the cinematic medium is not a simple matter. War movies are in many respects a genre that puts that medium to its most extreme moral test, and the essence of this test changes from one war to another. In the United States, for example, many films were made during World War II and the Korean War that dealt with those wars, whereas during the Vietnam War itself, only one movie was produced that dealt with it directly: John Wayne’s problematic, pro-war 1968 film “The Green Berets,” which was a huge hit. Other films made during that war assumed an allegorical framework, mostly that of the Western. One movie that deviated from that conception was Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.” from 1970; it was set during the Korean War, not Vietnam, but it was clear to all that its gaze was projecting from the past onto the present. Only after the Vietnam War was over did Hollywood begin making movies about it and its impact on American society, such as “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” ‏(both from 1978‏), “Platoon” (‏(1986‏ and “Born on the Fourth of July” (‏(1989‏.

The first Gulf War did not yield many films; the few that dealt with it, such as “Three Kings” (‏(1999‏ and “Jarhead” (‏(2005‏ were made years later; by the latter, America was already embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, these latter wars did give rise to some cinematic works, but they were all financial failures and thus filmmakers stopped focusing on them.

The Israeli story, when it comes to representing wars in films, is of course different from America’s, but no less complex. The Six-Day War spawned quite a few movies of a nationalist-heroic nature − the best-known and most representative of those being “He Walked Through the Fields,” by Yosef Milo ‏(1967; he added to the plot, ostensibly set during the War of Independence, an epilogue that refers to the Six-Day War and conveys a message supporting the need for men to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield‏) and “Every Bastard a King,” (1967‏) by Uri Zohar. But there were also less memorable films, such as Micha Shagrir’s “Scouting Patrol”   (1968‏), Menachem Golan’s “Attack at Dawn” (‏1970‏), and Boaz Davidson’s 1972 movie, “Azit The Paratrooper Dog” ‏(in addition to documentary films with such titles as “Six Days to Win” (‏(1967‏ and “Three Hours in June” (‏(1968, which were screened in local movie theaters and were the cinematic equivalent of the war victory albums published at the time.)

The only film that touched on the ‘67 war but deviated from the usual treatment of it was Gilberto Tofano’s “Siege” (‏(1969‏, which brought the story of a war widow whose late husband’s friends prevent her from moving on with her life.

In 1973, before the war broke out in October, local theaters screened several films of importance in terms of Israeli cinematic history, whether in terms of quality or box-office success: These included “Kazablan,” by Menachem Golan, and two films directed by Moshe Mizrahi, “The House on Chelouche Street” and “Abu el Banat.” That same year also heralded Assi Dayan’s directorial debut, “Crime on Delivery.”

Powerful impact

But the two most important Israeli-made films of 1973, which were critical of Israeli society and represented new directions for Israeli cinema, were two other debut efforts: “Light Out of Nowhere,” by Nissim Dayan, which unfortunately for him hit the screens just when the war broke out, and “Shalom, Prayer for the Road,” by Yaky Yosha, which was produced before the war but screened afterward. The element of social-political protest in the latter was, it turned out, a sign of things to come.

Even if “Kippur” is the only locally made movie actually set during the Yom Kippur War, several other films have been made here that focused on the effect the war had on those who took part in it. In 1987, Doron Eran directed a film called “Flash,” about a hero of the war who failed to rebuild his life in its wake. In 1988, Yoel Sharon directed his only feature film, “Betzilo Shel Helem Krav” ‏(Shell Shock‏), which told the story of two shell-shocked officers undergoing treatment in a psychiatric ward. In 1991, Uri Barbash directed “The War After,” based on the book by his brother Benny Barbash, about a colonel who is investigated for blunders he supposedly committed during the 1973 war, and the only officer who can help him was wounded and is in a coma.

In 1981, Yaky Yosha directed “The Vulture,” based on Yoram Kaniuk’s novel “The Last Jew,” whose protagonist, having survived the Yom Kippur War, founds a commercial enterprise for commemorating the fallen via publication of memorial booklets. The film aroused much protest at the time, and certain segments were cut because of complaints from bereaved families. In 1983, filmmaker Riki Shelach directed a melodrama called “The Last Winter,” about two women, an Israeli and an American, each of whom believes that a man featured in a television news story about POWs in Cairo is her husband, who has been missing since the 1973 war.

Those films may have touched on the consequences of that war, but its impact is more powerfully addressed in a large number of movies made even later. Certainly, one cannot imagine such films being made before 1973: Not only do they relate to the subject of wars and their ramifications; they also offer a new viewpoint vis-a-vis the military and its place in Israeli society. Among them are Yehuda Judd Ne’eman’s “Journey of the Stretchers” (‏(1977‏, which brought the story of a raw recruit who was either killed in a training accident or committed suicide after being abused by his commander; Shimon Dotan’s “Repeat Dive,” from 1982, which dealt even more powerfully than Tofano’s “Siege” with the place of the widow in a militaristic masculine society; Rafi Bukai’s “Avanti Popolo” (‏(1986‏, which tells the story of the Six-Day War from the perspective of two Egyptian soldiers who merely want to make it home safely; and Renen Schorr’s “Late Summer Blues” (‏1987‏), which daringly portrays the doubts besetting high-school graduates before being drafted during the War of Attrition.

An element of provocation exists in these four films − and that could not have been possible without the unresolved memories of the Yom Kippur War that preceded them. And this can also be said about other, non-dramatic movies: Could the comic and surrealist debauchery among soldiers in Assi Dayan’s “Halfon Hill” (‏(1976‏ − and the use of the military as the inspiration for an anti-establishment allegory in Avi Nesher’s “Halahaka” ‏(“Sing Your Heart Out”‏), from 1978 − have been possible before the 1973 war?

Before and after

While somewhat arbitrary, there is some validity to dividing local cinematic history into two periods: before and after the Yom Kippur War. The politicization of the medium here was a process that developed gradually after the war, and reached its climax in the 1980s in works such as Danny Wachsmann’s “Hamsin” (‏(1982‏; Yehuda Judd Ne’eman’s “Fellow Travelers” (1983‏); Dan Wolman’s “Night Soldier” and Uri Barbash’s “Beyond the Law” (‏(1984‏; Nissim Dayan’s “On a Narrow Bridge” (‏(1985‏; Shimon Dotan’s “The Smile of the Lamb” (‏(1986‏; Haim Bouzaglo’s “Fictitious Marriage” (‏1988‏); Yitzhak Tzepel Yeshurun’s “Greenfields,” and more.

The fact that the public had an aversion to these films, in which the occupation of the territories became a central theme, was one of the reasons for the financial crisis that plagued the local cinema industry. The exception was Eli Cohen’s “Ricochets” (‏(1986, which was produced by the IDF Film and Photography Unit, and was a hit. The local equivalent of “The Green Berets,” “Ricochets” was set in an occupied village in Lebanon during the first Lebanon War, four years beforehand.

(In this historical context, it is obligatory to mention Assi Dayan’s “Life According to Agfa,” from 1992, as the film that changed the face of local cinema most radically: It essentially summed up all Israeli cinema that preceded it, deconstructed it into its components, forced those components to collide with each other in a cinematic bloodbath until they were annihilated − and then announced the arrival of a new cinematic dawn, whose results we are still witnessing today.‏)

Only recently has local cinema returned to the subject of the 1982 Lebanon War − in the films “Beaufort,” “Waltz with Bashir” and “Lebanon,” which won acclaim and success abroad and at home. All three depicted war as a nightmare, but in contrast to Gitai’s “Kippur,” they maintained an ideological and political vagueness and also had a sentimental component that took the form of presenting the protagonists as victims of the fraught situation in which Israel is mired.

The Second Lebanon War has yet to yield a feature film set in its midst. Is it, like the Yom Kippur War, too “difficult” to be dealt with as of yet on the Israeli silver screen? Is there no one bold enough to do this? Will many more years go by before its memory is commemorated in local cinema − or will it perhaps never be? Will the absence of films that deal with it directly wind up highlighting its still-strong presence in the collective national memory?

In summary, the fact that Gitai, in “Kippur,” avoided making a direct political reference to the Israeli reality in which the war broke out, and to the circumstances that led up to it, actually augments the political significance of this film: Absence is presence; avoidance can also be a statement. The Yom Kippur War was, and remains, a formative event, and the way it has been represented historically in local cinema is a reliable and accurate reflection of the way in which this place copes with its memory and with the wounded, ambivalent, highly contradictory feelings this memory creates.

Moti Milrod