Sunday, October 10, 2010

Playing War: The Wooden Gun (1979)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 10, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Part coming of age drama, part political allegory, and part social commentary, Ilan Moshenson’s The Wooden Gun (Roveh Huliot in Hebrew) is a small gem. Set in Tel Aviv in 1950, it tells the story of a juvenile gang war between two small groups of adolescent boys. Against the backdrop of Israel’s first years, the story it tells is far vaster and much richer than it may first appear. With a small budget and primarily adolescent casts, this 1979 Israeli feature also dramatizes the striking differences between these young first-generation Israelis and their European-born parents, most of whom are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust. Raised on the glories of war, soldiers’ honour, and nationalism, the boys have little sympathy for or understanding of the world that their families left behind in coming to the newly-created State of Israel. Between the distracted silence of parents and the unthinking (and often confusing) idealism of educators, the children don’t appreciate the dangers of real violence. The boys' world is no larger than the battlefields of the schoolyards and streets of their small neighbourhood, and the impotent efforts of their parents and teachers to contain their escalating violent activities only serve to isolate the boys all the more from the older generation. An early scene in the film offers a perfect snapshot of this confusion of values: their teacher, a war veteran himself, pauses to briefly admonish Yoni for his continued fighting with his peers, then turns without a beat and leads the rest of the students on a charge up the hill of a former battlefield, rat-tat-tatting imaginary machine guns at an invisible enemy.

Arik Rosen
Working with a largely nonprofessional cast, writer/director Moshenson draws out uncompromising and sincere performances from the young boys. The untrained performances of the film’s stars—especially Arik Rosen, who plays the film’s 10-year-old protagonist Yoni and who is in practically every scene—adds powerfully to the film’s simple pacing and unflinching realism. Though Moshenson himself only directed one other feature (the 1986 comedy Crazy Weekend, a kind of burlesque social critique of Israeli mores) and none of its young cast went on to perform in other films or on television, The Wooden Gun remains a genuinely potent and often disturbing film, which raises some difficult questions about a critical moment of Israeli history and gives that story a very personal face.

Though inaccurately classified as a children’s film and robbed of a wide commercial release in 1979, the intervening years have been kind to this film, which continues to generate acclaim even in its fourth decade. (A clip from The Wooden Gun opens the second part of RaphaĆ«l Nadjari’s ambitious 2009 documentary A History of Israeli Cinema.) The passing of time has in fact only highlighted the significance and force of the movie. Though Moshenson set his drama in 1950, the film was conceived and filmed in the late 1970s. The ‘70s were a time of great social change in Israel. For the generation that fought in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, many of the values and presuppositions of their parents’ generation were brought into question for the first time. By taking his audience back to those first days of statehood, to the time when those conflicting ideologies were still in their infancy, he offers new perspectives on his own era. From our vantage point another thirty years later, the force of those insights have only grown.

Summer of Aviya (1988)
Though no doubt the primary theme of the film—the costs of raising children in an atmosphere of militarism and fear—is significant far beyond the social history of one nation, the film also effectively dramatizes a difficult topic unique to those early years of Israel: the particular challenge of welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees from war torn Europe, most of whom were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. In the film, this is poignantly dramatized in the context of Yoni’s family itself. Yoni’s mother (Judith Sole), who lost her entire family in the war, continues to alienate both her husband (Michael Kafir) and her young son through her apparent obsession with her lost relatives, despite all the best intentions on their parts. Yoni genuinely wishes to know and to understand the reasons behind her suffering, but his every inquiry is deferred (‘When you’re older,’ his mother tells him). But it is a promise we don’t ever expect her to keep. These small scenes are reflections of the larger social context of the culture writ large. In the 1950s in Israel, the Holocaust is literally everywhere and nowhere. Though explicitly part of the new state’s self-understanding, few are speaking about it aloud. Every day brought thousands of new arrivals from the the DP camps of Europe to the port of Haifa, but neither the new arrivals nor the established populations were eager to speak of what the refugees had fled. In fact, it wasn’t for another ten years, with the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, that the Holocaust was brought out in the open in Israeli society for the first time, breaking the tacit silence of the survivors. (And for decades later, it was still rare for a popular film in Israel to even indirectly take on Holocaust themes. After The Wooden Gun, we’d have to wait until 1988 for Gila Almagor’s Summer of Aviya—which interestingly is also set in the early 50s with another ten-year-old protagonist.)

When I first saw The Wooden Gun, I confess I was initially distracted by the question of how symbolic its characters and events were meant to be. Some scenes are so deliberately composed that they almost force an allegorical reading. But despite this, The Wooden Gun is a consistently unflinching and unsentimentally realistic film which holds a light up to an ambivalent era of Israeli history as the young nation begins to try to normalize itself. And so, for all the ambition of its narrative, in the end The Wooden Gun remains an intensively personal story. It is a film which effectively evokes the dreams and frustrations of those early years of statehood, through the narrow eyes of a young boy struggling to figure out how to live.

In our own time, as perhaps the true risks of raising a new generation of children under the shadow of an international war on terror—within larger societies gripped by a pervasive and but largely abstract state of fear—are now beginning to be felt, this small movie deserves a wider viewing.

The Wooden Gun was screened by the Toronto Jewish Film Society on September 26, 2010. It is available on DVD, in Hebrew with English subtitles, at Amazon and Chapters/Indigo.