National foundation myths are dearly held, but the more recent the “foundation,” the trickier it is to get a myth out of the cold hard facts.
On its surface, “Image of Victory” is a piece of Israeli agitprop, a triumphalist/martyred take on one corner of the first Arab-Israeli War, the one fought when Israel declared its independence as a “Jewish state” in 1948.
But in framing its story within an Egyptian journalist’s memory of the battle for the coastal Nitzanim kibbutz, writer-director Avi Nesher (“The Matchmaker”) pays just enough lip service to the opposing points of view about this conflict to make it interesting.
Israeli actor Amir Khoury, who played a terrorist in “Seven Days in Entebbe,” is Hassanni, an aged Egyptian journalist embittered at the news of the Camp David Accords, furious that his president, Anwar Sadat, has signed a treaty with “the enemy.”
Hassani thinks back to the decades of strife and slaughter, the lives lost “in vain.” Oddly enough, it’s a defiant Israeli Jew from that kibbutz battle he covered that sticks in his mind.
“It’s her I cannot forget.”
Back in 1948, Hassani was summoned to a new gig, as the reporter sent along with a cameraman to film newsreels for Egyptian cinemas. A hardcase producer wants him on the ground, covering the strife between the new kibbutz (Israeli communal settlement) and the neighboring Palestinian village of Hamama, many of whose poor farmers lost their land when the landlord sold it to well-financed Jewish settlers.
With Cairo street agitators preaching (in Arabic) that “These foreigners colonized our sacred land in order to expel (our) brothers,” and raging at Egypt’s playboy King Faruk’s impotent reaction to the mass Jewish migration to Palestine, this is the story of the hour.
Hassani and his photographer embed in the village, watching the locals, with a little training from a professional soldier, undertake sniper attacks on settlers planting orchards.
Platoons of Jewish convicts were brought in as soldiers to help protect Nitzanim.
The film limits its depictions of the Egyptian and Palestinian Arab point of view to Hassani having to learn to toe the propaganda line, universal dismay at Faruk and annoyance by the local fighters at being filmed — in “our humiliations” and even possible “triumph.”
That’s why “Image of Victory” is an ironic title. Hassani may have visions of Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” documentaries, humanizing conflict with these films, and bucking up Egyptian morale. Events and censorship might not allow that.
Most of the movie is about life inside that kibbutz, the toughness of the new or newish settlers, some with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. None is tougher than the one Hassani “cannot forget.”
Mira (former child actress Joy Rieger of “The End of Love”) is an earthy true believer of the kibbutz “way,” the mother of a small boy (who sleeps in the communal “children’s barracks”) who has no more use for the boy’s father.
If Mira takes a shine to the new army brigade captain (Tom Avni), her less butch not-quite-ex had best just step aside.
We hear the chatter of many languages, not just Hebrew, as new settlers come from all over Europe and engage in group sing-alongs, communal swims at the beach, bickering over the group showerhouse, gathering around the radio to hear Israel declare its independence at the end of the British Palestine mandate.
There’s even lip service paid to the touchiest subject at hand, then and now — land and land-ownership and the intentional displacement and violence it brings — in one of the communal (some are communists, many are socialists) debates.
“All lands in the world used to belong to someone else,” a political commissar huffs. “When we crawled out of the crematoria chimneys,” he fumes, “we paid the landlord good money” and that settles that.
Yes, that’s glib, and I was reminded of the shock I had watching a documentary about Israel’s founding a while back, with British officials expressing concern in correspondence — in 1919 — of Jewish migration and settlement strategy that seemed like “apartheid.” No, former President Jimmy Carter wasn’t the first to label the efforts of the “monoethnic state” of Israel to separate, sequester and disenfranchise Palestine’s Arabic majority that way. It’s been the plan from the start.
The combat sequences are straightforward and well-handled, with the settlers having the upper hand with a machine gun, mines and professional soldiers (and ex-convicts), then the Arabs gaining an artillery battery, with the climax a final assault that gives Hassani his memory “I cannot forget.”
Nesher can be praised for at least attempting to show two views of that fateful founding back in 1948. This isn’t “Exodus” or “Cast a Giant Shadow,” Hollywood’s celebrations of Israeli statehood and the blood that was spilled to gain it.
But I dare say this lopsided, somewhat factual take on Israel’s founding myth won’t show up on most Middle Eastern streaming services. Even at its “fairest,” this “Image of Victory” is always viewed through Israeli Haganah binoculars.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, nudity
Cast: Joy Rieger, Amir Khoury, Eliana Tidhar, Tom Avni, Meshi Kleinstein, Ala Dakka,
Credits: Written and directed by Avi Nesher, based on a true story. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:08