Ran Tal: Orphaned by idealism
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Director Ran Tal focuses on the kibbutz children who were separated from their parents and raised according to the principles of collective living. It seemed a huge price to pay for utopia
An elderly Israeli man is explaining how he got his name. "There was a vote... Nachum won by eight votes." Another man recalls how he never called his parents "mummy" or "daddy", only by their names. Anything else was "too bourgeois".
These are snippets from Children of the Sun, a documentary feature showing for the first time in Britain on Sunday as part of the Israel Cinema Showcase season. The speakers grew up on kibbutzim, and were subjected to radical child-rearing methods. The socialist-Zionists who established kibbutzim did not just want to build a new state. They also wanted to form what they called a "new Jew" - even a "new man".
In contrast to the capitalist West, where people were oppressed by the traditional family structure, kibbutz members were to live a utopia, created according to Marxist and Freudian wisdom. Children were to be the shared responsibility of the community, live in designated children's houses, and see their parents for two or three "quality" hours a day.
Children of the Sun is a rare glimpse into this world. It is comprised original footage from dozens of restored home movies, accompanied by interviews with 30 children who grew up when this approach was at its most extreme, from the 1920s to the mid 1950s.
The interviewees explain how these parent hours never included bed-time - they were always tucked up by their "care-givers". They even excreted in accordance with communal ideals. One man recalls how they all sat together ready to go, and knew to "use the potty on command".
The film is directed by Ran Tal, a 44-year-old who, like his mother, grew up in the children's house on Kibbutz Beit Hashita in the Jezreel Valley. By the time he was born, "the spirit had gone out of the system and things were relaxed". Chana, his mother, is one of the interviewees.
"It's a documentary on a specific theme, and I expected it would not be popular. I thought it would go from festivals straight to DVD," says Tal. However, when it was released last summer, cinemas were keen to screen it and 30,000 Israelis went to see it - an unprecedented number for a documentary. It picked up the best documentary film award at last year's Jerusalem Film Festival.
The film deals with separation from parents; the atmosphere in the peer group; and the high expectations laid on children to become what one interviewee describes as "the prototypes of the emerging society". It also charts the "disintegration" of communal child-rearing, which ended with the closure of the last children's houses in the 1990s. "It really was the birth of my own two children that started me off thinking about the subject of this film," says Tal, who left Beit Hashita in his twenties to live in Tel Aviv. "I started to think about childhood and to research the old kibbutz method. I found it disturbing in many ways - it seemed a huge price to pay to create a utopia." Nevertheless, Tal rejects the notion that the film is polemical. "It's not just a question of good or bad - this film is exploring a culture.
"The challenge is that in home movies, people never shoot the sad sides of family life - you always see the weddings but never the divorces. The kibbutz was one big family, and this film is an attempt to work through its memories - those that are recorded on the moving pictures, and those that aren't."
Children of the Sun will be shown on Sunday at 4.30pm at the Screen on the Hill, London NW3. Tel: 020 7435 3366