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The unknown side of Ben-Gurion

A new film about Israel's first Prime Minister has led a whole generation of young Israelis to rediscover the Jewish leader

    This is a detective story, or maybe a piece of cinematic archaeology, with a significant British presence. It’s a thriller whose final twist may still surface but, for now, it’s exciting enough.

    Yariv Mozer and Yael Perlov are two Israeli film-makers whose documentary, Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, has just won an Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of an Oscar. The film, garlanded with praise by critics at home and abroad, has led a whole generation of young Israelis to rediscover David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister. He has gone from being “a picture on the schoolroom wall” to a recognisable and inspiring Jewish leader, rehabilitated since his death in 1973.

    And it is Mozer and Perlov’s quest to revive long-forgotten footage of B-G, as he was popularly known, which forms the spine of their film.

    This story started more than four years ago when Mozer, now 39, decided to screen all the films made by David Perlov, Yael’s late father, for a retrospective at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. “David, who died in 2003, was really the godfather of film in Israel,” says Mozer, who studied with him after his army service.

    David Perlov, born in Brazil, was primarily a documentary film-maker, but he was known to have made one feature film, the lavishly colourful 42.6. The title comes from a verse in the Book of Isaiah: “I, the Lord, have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations”.

    The 1970 film is a lightly fictionalised account of how David Ben-Gurion became a founder of the state of Israel, featuring high production values barely seen in Israel at the time, with sweeping panorama shots, battles, horses — a very David Lean-ish sort of treatment.

    As Mozer recounts, the copy available for showing at the Cinematheque “was a really bad copy, and we didn’t even have the end of the film. I kept nagging to see if there was a proper version of 42.6”. David Perlov’s daughter, Yael, herself an experienced documentary film-maker, knew that there was a copy of her father’s film in the Spielberg Archive in Jerusalem. So she and Mozer went to take a look.

    “And suddenly,” says Mozer, “the head of the archive said, there’s some more film connected to this”. To his and Perlov’s astonishment, “some more film” turned out to be six hours of face-to-face interviews with David Ben-Gurion himself, shot in 1968 over three days at his desert home in Sde Boker. B-G had resigned from office five years previously, and had lost his wife, Paula, just four months before he gave the interviews.

    The entire project had been put together by an extraordinary British maverick, Melville Mark, who had variously been both a Mossad agent and the originator of the Golden Rose of Montreux TV festival. Manchester-born Mark was also a fervent Zionist.

    “It was Melville Mark’s idea to interview B-G with a view to making an eventual feature film”, says Mozer. “B-G knew of the idea and that’s why he gave permission. The plan was to do the interviews and then turn the material over to a screenwriter who would produce the script for 42.6. And we can see, in the feature film, scenes which are obviously inspired or based on replies which B-G gave in his interviews”.

    Mozer and Perlov, thrilled by the unknown footage but frustrated by its lack of sound, began to search worldwide, to try to marry up the images with the missing sound-track. And they discovered 16mm reels of film in the British Film Institute which turned out to be a short film produced by Melville Mark, describing how the B-G interviews came about. “Melville had lost track of this film”, says Mozer, “but we found it. And we found a book that Melville wrote about the background to the interviews and why they were turned into a feature film. He wanted to release the material to every Jewish library in the world”.

    Melville Mark had an office in Geneva, the city where his son, David Marks (creator of the London Eye whose obituary you can read on page 63), grew up. “David was very close to his father”, says Mozer. “He only discovered he had been a Mossad agent after his death, but David did know that his father had a locked storage facility in Geneva, and he had left him the key in his will”.

    David Marks had never been to the facility, which had remained locked for 40 years. But he agreed, at Mozer and Perlov’s request, to go to Geneva and open up

    Inside was a treasure trove of material relating to the B-G interviews, a pile of posters for 42.6, which even the Perlov family had never seen, documents and all the files connected with the B-G film. “Melville kept everything,” says Mozer, appreciatively.

    But there was still no sound to go with the interview. Mozer and Perlov tried to track down as many members of the original interview team as they could — and they were lucky enough to trace Malcolm Stewart, the original sound recordist.

    “We called him in London”, recalls a laughing Mozer, “and the first thing he said to us was, ‘I’m 86, I should be dead by now”.

    Stewart, born Schweitzer, had worked on numerous feature films, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and The Italian Job. He vividly remembers working on the B-G interviews nearly 50 years ago.

    “I had my own studios in London and Geneva, and I knew Melville from there. He approached me and asked if I would be interested in working on the film. Normally, I wouldn’t have been, I would have sent someone, but I had already met Ben-Gurion when I had worked on a BBC documentary about him when he was prime minister. I was so impressed, I became a Zionist overnight”.

    He and the rest of the team spent a week in Sde Boker in Ben-Gurion’s house, filming the former prime minister, then 82, who spoke candidly about his life and his hopes for the still-young state of Israel.

    Malcolm Stewart paid keen attention to B-G’s responses, which in his opinion, “ran rings” round the young interviewer, Clinton Bailey — today a distinguished expert on the Bedouin, living in Jerusalem.

    Yael Perlov does not agree. She says: “I actually found the questions extraordinary, and they present us with a very intimate portrait of Ben-Gurion. He and Bailey together were almost like father and son”.

    For her and for David Marks — the original director’s daughter and the original producer’s son — there was an emotional meeting as she and Mozer continued to piece together the jigsaw behind the two films. Malcolm Stewart, it turned out, had presented copies of his sound files of the B-G interviews to the Ben-Gurion archives in 2006 — and there they had stayed, unidentified by staff, until Perlov and Mozer came knocking.

    “My father and Melville Mark really liked each other”, says Perlov. “I remember my father disappearing into the desert [to make 42.6] — he admired B-G very much. For me, it is very hard to watch the film, which was very innovative in its day.”

    She also found herself with a sensation since familiar to the thousands of Israelis who have watched Epilogue — “I knew about Ben-Gurion but I actually didn’t know anything about him. And these interviews made me so curious, to listen to a leader, the way he walked, the way he smiled, what he had to say about right and wrong”.

    There is one final mystery about the desert interviews, says Perlov. “Until today, the negatives of the film have never been found. We know that the original negatives were in colour, but we have not found them. If they are ever found, we will change the film.” But even in black-and-white, and supplemented by a glorious range of additional archive material from around the world — plus, of course, scenes from 42.6 —the Ben-Gurion of 1968 emerges triumphantly from the screen.

    And although he was a conviction socialist, B-G has seduced politicians across the spectrum, including, surprisingly, right-wing Jewish Home leader, Naftali Bennett. “I see a leader with a vision”, concluded Bennett after watching Epilogue. And it is just that resonance which inspired Mozer and Perlov. “We see Ben-Gurion in 1968 — but we can’t stop thinking about today.”

     

    ‘Ben-Gurion: Epilogue’ will be shown on November 19 at the UK Jewish Film Festival.

     

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