Ariel Feldestein’s volume surveys the development of cinema in Israel from the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 through the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II, focusing on three indigenous filmmakers and three from overseas. Though it makes some valuable points, the book – which is significantly hampered by a stilted translation into English from Feldestein’s original Hebrew – will be of interest mainly to a few specialists who are conversant with a small corpus of obscure films.
Although a few of the films Feldestein discusses aspired to the status of mainstream entertainment, most were conceived as little more than propaganda. The filmmakers seemed to be interested primarily in developing, and then recycling, a series of stock images that would reinforce the founding ideals of the Zionist enterprise. The book does provide a valuable catalog of this iconography: the effete, first-generation immigrant from the Diaspora who gives way, and gives rise, to the hearty, self-sufficient second-generation sabra; the subordination of individual interests to the collective; the blooming of the desert; the role of the essentially secular pioneers to preserve and protect ancient religious sites, sects, and folkways in a manner that calls to mind how museum curators treat the collections in their charge.
Feldestein seems bent on resuscitating the reputations of these filmmakers and their works, most of which are accessible only through prints preserved in repositories such as the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Feldestein’s own analyses often undermine this objective. The films, at least as he describes them, seem to have been primitive even by the standards of the period in which they were made. While Feldestein laments the lack of support of international Zionist agencies for the efforts of indigenous filmmakers like Yaacov Ben-Dov, the reader is likely to agree with the representatives of those agencies who pointed out that the works they were being asked to sponsor were embarrassingly poor, and that the agencies’ resources would be far better spent elsewhere.