Avi Nesher is a busy man. In between scouting locations in the desert for his next film, the acclaimed Israeli writer-director is hard at work promoting his current release, Image of Victory, attending festivals in the US and Europe. Despite his chaotic schedule, he plans to be in London next week for the film’s opening night gala screening at Seret, the Israeli film and television festival. “It’s really hectic but these are good problems to have,” grins Nesher, 69, via Zoom, late at night from Tel Aviv.
In a career spanning more than four decades, Nesher has often based his films on real life stories and in that respect, Image of Victory is no different. It is set in 1948 during the War of Independence and tells the little-known story of the battle of Kibbutz Nitzanim from two conflicting perspectives: the kibbutz members and soldiers who stayed to defend it from an Egyptian attack and the experience of a young, aspiring Egyptian journalist and filmmaker tasked with documenting events while accompanying Egyptian troops. Starring Joy Rieger (Valley of Tears, Past Life, The Other Story) and Amir Khoury (Fauda), it is a story about war, Nesher emphasises, not the war itself.
Militarily under-resourced and outnumbered by the Egyptian forces, the kibbutz eventually surrendered after many of its members were killed. Its fall was perceived by some as a defeat, including by the country’s national poet Abba Kovner, who was a soldier in the elite Givati Brigade at the time and appears briefly in the film.
Those who surrendered and were taken prisoner were accused of being traitors. Nesher had been approached by producer, Ehud Bleiberg to make a film about “the great injustices done to Nitzanim,” he explains. Bleiberg’s father, Yerah, had been a member of the kibbutz — and features as a minor character — but Nesher was initially not keen. “There are many injustices in the world, this one not very different than the other ones. But then I discovered the whole thing was filmed, and that got my attention — why was there a movie camera and who brought it?” He learnt that the renowned Egyptian journalist, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal had been asked by King Farouk to manufacture a triumphant story of the battle. Had that particular angle not existed, he says, he would not have made the film.
Amir Khoury in Image of Victory (Signature Entertainment)
At the heart of the story is another real-life character: kibbutznik and radio operator, Mira Ben Ari, played by Rieger; her third collaboration with Nesher. Feisty and tough, she cares little about what people think about her, choosing to send her son away to a place of safety while she stays to fight. For her son and daughter-in-law, who are executive producers, there is obvious personal investment in the story but Nesher is adamant that this did not, affect his approach. “I was very, very clear from the outset, contractually,” he says. “It’s not attributed to anyone. I greatly respect people’s emotions, but emotions of individuals do not lend themselves to good art. It is important to keep these people at bay, for their own benefit. You’re not making a tribute to their families. You’re making a movie that hopefully they’ll be proud of.”
Joy Rieger in Image of Victory (Photo: Signature Entertainment)
Former kibbutz members are perceived as victims by their descendants, says Nesher. “That may or may not be so. The movie does not say that, nor does it adhere to any conspiracy theories or show Abba Kovner as a demon. I was extremely careful not to go there.”
Nesher cast both Arabs and Jews but, inevitably, the Arab actors see 1948 differently from the Jews. “We agreed to disagree,” he says. “If the movie says anything, it is that that is acceptable. You do not need to give up a firm grip of your own story, but I believe that you do have to accept the validity of the other person’s narrative and respect it.”
Nesher says he makes films about groups. His portrayal of the isolated, nascent, southern kibbutz reflects a credible community of immigrants, including Holocaust survivors and people from Argentina and Russia — each carrying their own ideals, loves and losses. “There are three myths in the Israeli psyche: the Holocaust, our independence and immigration and they still colour the Israeli experience,” he explains. “But within this mishmash, the Israeli story is we all came here together to create something greater than the individual, and the kibbutz is the crowning jewel of that theory. And that powerful notion has kind of trickled down to every facet of Israeli life, from the neighbourhood that you grew up in, to your platoon in the army.” We are speaking after the recent murders in Bnei Brak and Nesher says the Israeli societal response to such incidents is personal. “It’s not some people who were shot somewhere but ‘we’ were assaulted, what are ‘we’ going to do? I spent a good number of years in the States and feel very comfortable in American society, but the dichotomy is dramatic between the ‘I’ in America and the ‘we’ here. I do not know a society on earth that idolises the ‘we’ to such an extent.”
Nesher’s films are invariably Israeli box office successes and in 2021, he received the Academy of Israeli Motion Pictures Excellence Award. Image of Victory was nominated for 15 Israeli Academy Awards last year and, although it only won in three categories: for best cinematography, best costume design and best makeup, during the Omicron wave Nesher says 200,000 Israelis came to the cinema to see the film during the Omicron wave. “Only two films worked in Israel then: Spider- Man and Image of Victory!”
Some critics have described the film as the pinnacle of his career. Does he agree? “Listen, for the last 20 years, every movie I’ve made was the best I’ve made so far,” he replies. “I love film critics and I love reading interpretations of my movies and don’t argue with anything. I take this compliment gladly.”
Image of Victory is yet to screen in Egypt, but the Israeli Foreign Office is trying to organise this, says Nesher. “It’s my great hope that it will happen. I really made the film, thinking some day Egyptians will see it in Cairo. It has to play for them.”
UK Seret International Festival runs in the UK from May 12 to 19
Programme and tickets: seret-international.org
Signature Entertainment presents Image of Victory on digital platforms from May 23