Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: Kibbutz

When my DVD copy of the documentary Kibbutz arrived in the mail late last year, I was so busy that I didn’t have time to put it into a player for a couple of weeks. When I did, I was disappointed that it had gotten damaged during its journey from Israel to the West Coast of B.C. The film's producer quickly mailed a new copy. This time, I immediately popped it into my computer at work to make sure it functioned, so I’d be ready to view it when I had more free time. An hour later, I had watched the film in its entirety—and become so engrossed in the account of the slow, sad unravelling of Kibbutz Hulata that I nearly forgot to pick up my daughter at daycare!
Kibbutz, released in 2005, is one of the first examples of what I call “privatization cinema”—that’s why it gets to claim the simple name of its title. Interestingly, while other films chronicle the debate around and prelude to the vote to privatize on different kibbutzim, Racheli Schwartz's documentary tracks instead the stages of grieving and disillusionment that follow Hulata’s decision to reduce its communal commitment to its members. What makes Kibbutz so affecting is the personal intimacy and extended context that Schwartz brings to the material. In fact, it was originally subtitled “A Personal Diary.”
A member for 30 years, the filmmaker isn’t just a visitor offering a snapshot by an outsider of her kibbutz. Instead, her film follows various members (including her  own family) over the course of five years—three older women, from the founding generation, become symbols of the kibbutz’s lost ideas and abandoned history, as they die off, one by one. Schwartz, who asks people questions from behind her lens, admits early on that “making the movie helped me to decide to stay.”
It can’t have been an easy decision. Her film opens memorably with the story of a laid-off citrus worker, a member of the kibbutz, who hanged himself from a tree overlooking the orchards where he once worked. These same orchards are later sawed down for being unprofitable. Schwartz captures remarkably revealing footage of a privatization consultant, hired by the kibbutz, going through a list of enterprises and expenses and telling kibbutz managers how many employees to lay off and which operations to shut down. “The kibbutz was the main way to make settlement possible,” the financial advisor tells Schwartz later. “At some point, it was finished.”
The filmmaker has an ear for such memorable quotes. “We are going through a process of breakdown,” says one member. “They stole the kibbutz from me,” announces another. One kibbutznik wonders if the fact that Hulata—located south of Shamir and named after the Hula Valley—was built on the absorption of underprivileged reason was partly why it has failed to thrive in the hyper-capitalist 21st-century. “Since the changes on the kibbutz,” he laments, “people only talk about money.”
Schwartz also has a keen eye for images that carry symbolic weight. When managers decide to first privatize and then shut down the communal dining room, her camera lingers on the skinny cats looking vainly for scraps and then fixes on the stopped clock in the empty hall. She reveals how the simple act of growing shrubs becomes for many members a defiant act of walling themselves away from their neighbours. She interviews an employee of the kibbutz laundry, his salary slashed because his labour is now deemed menial, who has turned to religion because he feels his kibbutz has turned its back on his own family, and yet he still saves the loose shekels he finds in his machines and gives them to families more needy than his own. (His own son, affected by the changes, also tries to commit suicide.) She observes a music teacher packing her car full of wind and string instruments and driving off, before narrating: “A kibbutz that has reached the point that it has to sell its musical instruments has lost its way.”
It’s a powerful, damning sentiment in a beautifully wrought documentary that offers a deeply personal yet rigorously researched perspective on the privatization debate. I don’t know if you can generalize from the experiences of Hulata to all kibbutzim, but those communities still considering the prospects of privatization would be wise to watch this movie and learn from the mistakes documented so powerfully in its images. For anyone curious about the film, check out the trailer below...


13 comments:

  1. Hello, I just stumbled across this post - not sure if you're still maintaining the blog. I was wondering how you were able to acquire your copy of the movie. I spent four months volunteering at Hulata in the mid-90's and am desperate to get my hands on this film. I emailed the filmmaker years ago but never got a response. Would love to learn how you went about getting the dvd. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Masha: Sorry to be slow to get back to you! I've been buried in work & neglecting my blog to focus on finishing a book about the whole kibbutz movement. Which email did you try to contact the filmmakers at ? I went through Gal Schwartz via galschwartz@gmail.com . You could try that. I tried to meet the filmmaker dring my last visit to Israel but my plans fell through.

      It's definitely worth watching, if you can get a copy. Here is another link that might be helpful: http://www.israelfilmcenter.org/israeli-film-database/films/kibbutz?ifdsearch=kibbutz

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  2. I was a volunteer in Hulata in 1978. The movie is very intense and very sad. The movie makers sent me a DVD - a few years ago now

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    1. Thanks, Niall. Yes, it's a powerful and moving film — probably the most emotionally hard hitting of the different kibbutz films I've watched.

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  3. I think the IDEA of a Kiddutz is something we all, not just the Isralites but Americans NOW should consider! A community of like minded people who could live in homes or land that they can be self sufficient. self sustaniable .... Darlene Gaudas if interested please contact me
    ` dmgvision@gmail.com

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  4. Hi Darlene: Thanks for your comment! Yes, the idea (and ideal) of the kibbutz offers a healthy counterpoint to how we often live. I think we're seeing a small movement outside ISrael, a bit like that, in the ecovillages. The Global Ecovillage Network offers support for self-sustainable communities trying to live in harmony with the planet and each other

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  5. Interesting review David. My wife and I worked on the Hulata Kibbutz for 3 months in 74 and both loved it. I was very disappointed that such a strong community spirit died. I will see if I can get a copy of the DVD all the same. I had considered going back and having a look, but I won't now. It would be very depressing.

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  7. I would like to meet Racheli Schwartz on my next as yet unplanned (but soon), visit to Israel as well.  I have been wanting to watch her video 'Kibbutz' for several years.  It always seems very difficult to obtain information on the internet about this film. I also (as Niall in an earlier comment) volunteered on Hulata in 1977-78 and again in 1980 (and have known and kept contact with Niall since that time too).  I am sure a significant number of several thousands of ex-Hulata volunteers would like to watch 'Kibbutz' too.  I am fortunate to have business links in Israel nowadays, but yet to return.  A revisit back to modern-day Hulata is at the top of my list, which I hope will be possible to achieve.  Aspects of kibbutz life on Hulata throughout its volunteer years are a significant part of its 80 year history and continue to be a significant part of many of our (ex-volunteers) lives whever we are living in the world today.

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    1. Hi Ian: If you email at dleach@uvic.ca, I can pass along a contact for Racheli. I have her son's email. We tried to connect with her during my last visit to Israel but we couldn't coordinate our schedules. Her film is excellent — and I imagine even more poignant for anyone who has lived on Hulata.

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  8. I was an American volunteer there in 1971. My parents sent me there to get away from NY and the drug culture. A lot in this review is very nostalgic and familiar. I worked in the orchards picking fruit. I thankfully transitioned to working in the shoe factory which was air conditioned. I remember the big dining hall. I also remember the winding trenches meant to provide shelter from Syrian snipers up on Golan Heights. I met a number of Holocaust survivors who were quite numerous. My favorite part was the fact that there were kids from the UK, France, Germany and all over the US.
    I even ended up with a girl friend who lived in Cleveland. While I complained like hell when I was there, I have very fond memories of Hulata and I am sorry it imploded.

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    1. Thanks for your message. Yes, other kibbutzes (like Shamir, where I volunteered) managed to make the transition into "privatization" without the trauma that occurred on Hulata. Meeting the volunteers from around the world was also a big part of the appeal of the kibbutz for me — and an important part of my education about the world.

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  9. I am saddened to see how it has deteriorated from the lively place I stayed in for 3 months in 1972. I had a lot of fun and hard work there, made friends and came to understand the problems of living on a kibbutz so close to the Golan Heights. As a community it's prime advantage was that it had a very practical approach to communal living with members who were resourceful, kind and very determined. One powerful memory [amongst many] was walking to the fields to work before dawn with hundreds of bats swooping just above our heads as we moved between the trees!

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