The title Israel: A Home Movie outlines the found-footage documentary’s double mission: It sets out to be both a “people’s history” of the state of Israel and a film about the practice of amateur moviemaking. Footage culled from silent 8mm and 16mm home movies is arranged chronologically and soundtracked with commentary from the amateur filmmakers and their subjects; the approach is context-free and requires either a baseline knowledge of Israeli popular culture or a willingness to remember names and Google them later. The absence of a central narrative voice is both the film’s main conceit and its biggest shortcoming; memory is subjective, and because Israel never attempts to interrogate its commentators, their more specious statements go unchallenged. The heavy-handed scoring and sound design—which bring to mind public-radio storytelling at its most overindulgent—give the impression that Israel is taking its multiple narrators at their word.
Yet, regardless of these distorted or over-personalized interpretations, the footage often speaks for itself; at times, it seems like Israel would work better as a silent film, allowing the home movies to serve their original function without commentary. It’s possible, for instance, to chart the decline of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the way Arabs appear less often in the home movies with each passing year. In the earliest footage—shot by Jewish emigrants in what was then British Palestine—they appear frequently as friends, neighbors, and employees. By the ’60s, they are only seen from a distance through the zoom lenses of then-new Super 8 cameras; after 1970, they’re completely gone.
Israel’s most interesting—and revealing—footage tends to be the most candid: beach-goers in the ’30s, scenes from family gatherings and celebrations, a coke-fueled celebrity wedding in the ’70s. The commentary gimmick justifies itself in these stretches. A former smut peddler recalls showing hardcore porn to elderly Orthodox women, and an elderly man chides his long-deceased father for being a terrible cameraman.
The last third of Israel deals almost exclusively with the Yom Kippur War, which the movie implicitly posits as both the final step in the formation of Israel’s national identity and the end of the home-movie era. Perhaps it’s indicative of how TV news has desensitized viewers to first-hand images of war that the images captured by soldiers and reporters feel overly familiar. Much more striking is the Super 8 footage shot by a group of men who had gone to the beach unaware that the war had started and inadvertently captured a Syrian jet being shot down; that moment makes a better case for the importance of home movies as a historical record than any of the grandstanding statements that close out the film.