The Kibbutz At 100

Documentary looks at ups and downs of Israel’s noble experiment in collective living; ‘Dolphin Boy’ considers a very different kind of experiment.

04/24/2012
Special to the Jewish Week
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For many Jews in the diaspora, the ideal of the kibbutz has always spoken loudly about what the State of Israel was supposed to be. Some of the avatars of modern Zionism would have agreed. After all, they were among the pioneers who created the first kibbutz, just over a century ago, at Degania. One of the most remarkable moments in Toby Perl Freilich’s new documentary “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment” occurs early in the film when she speaks with Yoya Shapiro, whose parents were two of the 12 young men and women who founded that settlement in 1910. A century later, it would be hard to get much closer to the roots of the movement than that.

As the film (which opens at the Quad Cinema April 25) makes abundantly clear, this kind of continuity has long been both the strength, and, potentially, the fatal weakness of the kibbutzim, Israel’s noble experiment in collective living. The film, and the movement, pivot on the apparent rupture between the second- and third-generation kibbutzniks: the children of the founders who built the movement in its years of struggle and growth, and the children of those children, who began to abandon it when the economy clobbered the collectives in the 1980s.

This is not an unfamiliar story. There have been other documentaries that have portrayed the historical and contemporary problems of kibbutz life with regard to economics, and many Israeli fictional portrayals that range from the nakedly hostile to the deeply affectionate.

What sets Freilich’s film apart is its brisk intelligence and balance. The current and former kibbutzniks that she interviewed represent the entire range of positions on the success or failure of the experiment; even her experts — Moshe Halbertal, Menachem Brinker and Avishai Margalit — who speak from first-hand experience, have differing opinions. The result is a reasoned and nuanced evaluation of the results of the movement’s first century and its hopes for a second.

The relationship of the kibbutzim to the rest of Israeli society has always been difficult. At the peak of their success, only 5 percent of Israel’s population lived on kibbutzim, but the cooperatives supplied a disproportionately large portion of the nation’s food supply. (There are moments in “Inventing Our Life” when you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon an episode of “Modern Farmer” by mistake.) The kibbutzniks made an easy scapegoat for Likud pols during the ’70s and ’80s. And the internal politics of the individual kibbutzim have always been as contentious as you would expect for communities composed entirely of vocal, verbal, prickly Jews.

On the other hand, for a documentary filmmaker, such people are a godsend. Freilich, whose 2003 film “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers” was exceptional, is a smart interviewer and a deft editor. As a result, “Inventing Our Life” is both entertaining and illuminating.

Dolphin Boy,” co-directed by Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir, is another documentary that looks in on a unique Israeli experiment in community. Much of the film, which opens April 27, also at the Quad, is set in a home in Eilat, where dolphins are used as therapeutic treatment of disturbed youths. Like Menkin’s first feature documentary, “39 Pounds of Love,” this is an inspiring story of a young man resisting the seeming limitations of mind and body. Morad, an Israeli Arab teen, used to be a popular and successful high school student until the older brother of a female classmate intercepted what he (mistakenly) took to be a provocative text. The result was a brutal, systematic beat-down that left Morad unable to communicate with anyone. But over the next several years, Morad underwent a program of therapy in Eilat where he gradually became comfortable with the dolphins and, eventually, with the humans who worked in the program as well.

Menkin and Nir were fortunate that Morad’s doctor Ilan Kutz kept video and audio of the early stages of their work, as well as formidably complete case notes. As a result, we can literally see how one severely damaged young man slowly regains his identity, his memory and his selfhood under the most unusual circumstances. At the same time, the film subtly stresses its other message, voiced by Morad’s father, “Through anger I won’t save anything.”

The film’s ending is affirmative, but one is also left with the sense of loss that is inevitable when Morad leaves the dolphin reef in Eilat to return to his old life. A title card tells of a happy aftermath, but an audience is more affected by what is seen than what what is read in a film. Still, Morad’s future is considerably more promising than that of most on the kibbutzim, and “Dolphin Boy” has unmistakable emotional impact.

“Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment” opens on Wednesday, April 25 at the Quad Cinema. “Dolphin Boy” opens Friday, April 27 at the Quad as well. The Quad Cinema is located at 34 W. 13th St.; for information, call (212) 255-2243 or go to www.quadcinema.com.

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