The latest documentary from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films, “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” opens in Seattle on Nov. 29 and gives viewers a rare and almost-never-before-seen insider’s look at three decades of Israeli history through the lens of an insider: Ambassador Yehuda Avner, the former chief aide, English-language speechwriter, and note-taker for Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres.
From the rare archival footage of Israel’s War of Independence, the capture and retaking of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars to the resignation of Golda Meir in 1974, Avner “calls the play-by-play” for critical turning points in Israel’s struggle to survive and grow.
The nearly two-hour film is adapted from his best-selling book of the same name and is the first of a two-part collaboration between the Academy Award-winning Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Wiesenthal Center, who produced and co-wrote the film, and Moriah Films’ Richard Trank, the executive producer and principal writer and director. Moriah Films is a division of the Wiesenthal Center.
After Avner introduces himself, simply identifying as an unwitting public servant in the right place at the right time, he transports us back in time.
His first-hand accounts of crucial high-level conversations, supported by photos, video, and documentation from 44 archival sources, reveal how this historic group of leaders carved out a nation by sheer nerve, guts, and will.
Avner never undermines the legacies of these larger-than-life trailblazers. Instead, they become more nuanced — more balanced.
“Their lives were totally dedicated to the defense of Israel,” Avner tells.
Of Meir in particular, “there were some situations that would have broken other people,” he said, while Rabin was “shy to a fault.”
The movie’s many astonishing still photographs include a black-and-white close-up of Rabin lighting Meir’s cigarette as they both grab a quick smoke outside of a United Nations assembly meeting.
Other photos bring us into the face-to-face negotiations between Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, and U.S. President Harry Truman in his living room where, according to Avner, Truman finally realized that “Hitler’s war against the Jews was not just a Jewish problem. It was an American problem.”
In another pivotal conversation between Prime Minister Eshkol and Pres. Lyndon Johnson in the living room of Johnson’s Texas ranch, Avner recalls that Johnson was reluctant to give Israel the F4 Phantom jets Eshkol was requesting.
“The big problem is how two and a half million Jews can live in a sea of Arabs” Johnson told Eshkol. “The real question,” asked Johnson, is “What kind of Israel do you want?”
“Eshkol caught his inner ear,” said Avner. “There was something inside him that said, ‘We have to help in some way.’”
“Starting with that meeting with Eshkol and LBJ,” said Trank in an interview with JTNews, “the relationship between Israel and the United States started to become a strategic one and it kept strengthening with each successive administration.
“LBJ was really one of the first to recognize that this was not just a conflict between Israelis and Arabs,” added Trank, “but a geopolitical conflict that involved the United States and the Soviet Union.”
Avner tells how the two cemented their friendship at the ranch when LBJ, the Texas rancher and Eshkol, the original kibbutznik, both knelt down to tend to a newborn calf.
Trank and his crew shot current footage of the ranch for the segment.
“The LBJ ranch is a working ranch,” said Trank. “When we were there, there was a calf not too much older than the one Yehuda described, so we were able to intercut what we shot.”
In some of the first television ever recorded in Israel, we see Meir crying at Labor Party headquarters, her face in her hands, as she is elected Prime Minister.
“We found some things that were buried in the archives in Israel,” Trank said. “Television had just come into being in Israel when she was elected. It was probably a very early film, maybe aired once on Israeli TV, and was just buried. We were able to find it.”
The original musical score, written and conducted by Emmy and Grammy winner Lee Holdridge, is performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and adds depth, beauty and drama to the historical accounts.
The voices of Sandra Bullock as Golda Meir, Michael Douglas as Yitzhak Rabin, Leonard Nimoy as Levi Eshkol, and Christopher Waltz as Menachem Begin were used to recreate inaudible video speeches and dialogue.
“The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers,” the second half of the story based on Avner’s book, will premiere in the spring of 2014. This film will cover Avner’s time serving under Rabin, Begin and Peres as well as his role as Israel’s ambassador to England.