David Ben-Gurion, the country’s revered founding prime minister, whose leadership shoes have never quite been filled ever since, not even by his notable protege Shimon Peres. Unfortunately, for extra-terrestrial guests and perplexed Israelis alike, Ben-Gurion passed away in 1973.
But wait a minute, what if it was possible to bring him back and hear what he has to say about Israel’s current problems? About the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for instance?
Ben-Gurion, Epilogue, a new Israeli documentary written and directed by Yariv Mozer, tries to a certain extent to do exactly that. The film is based on footage of an in-depth recently-discovered interview with Ben-Gurion that has never been seen before.
The year is 1968. It is 20 years since Israel declared its independence, one year since the country captured territories from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Ben-Gurion, 82, has resigned from the government and is living alone in his desert kibbutz, uninhibited by political constraints, free to speak his mind.
Most of the film is comprised of Ben-Gurion’s uninterrupted answers to questions from ethnographer Clinton Bailey. But occasionally the filmmakers offer subtle interpretations. For instance, when Ben-Gurion talks about why, despite strong opposition from Holocaust survivors, he established ties in the 1950s with West Germany, Ben-Gurion doesn’t mention one possible reason – assistance from German nuclear scientists in building Israel’s capability. That suggestion comes from a juxtaposed German tv news report.
When it comes to the territories captured in the 1967 war, Ben-Gurion is quite straightforward. So much so, that it will be tempting for present-day viewers, to pluck out a line or two and use them to re-inforce their own political agenda.
When he says “If I would have a choice between peace and all the territories which we conquered last year (during the 1967 war) I would prefer peace,” it will be music to the ears of people on the left.
But when, in the same breath, he qualifies that by saying that he would not withdraw from certain territories – (East) Jerusalem and the (formerly Syrian) Golan Heights — the ears of those on the right will undoubtedly perk up.
It would be unwise, however, for anyone to suggest that political decisions today can be based on the political realities of nearly 50 years ago.
And filmmaker Yariv Mozer has been wise enough to not overdo the political and instead use the six hours of raw footage at his disposal, along with period newsreels, to create a character study with uncanny contemporary resonance. From one utterance to another, we slowly get to know a leader who placed a high value on setting a personal example, was intimately familiar with other cultures, and offered his people a moral vision.
These characteristics are particularly striking compared to so many present day politicians, be they lawyers or real estate tycoons.
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