Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Movie "Altalena" reviewed


Although lacking production quality, acting expertise and mise-en-scene, the story of this confused and deadly struggle between loyal Israeli forces is still a vital and important part of the history of Israeli independence

Known for his award winning documentaries, “Richochets” (Official Selection at Cannes), “The Summer of Aviya” (winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin) and others, director Eli Cohen focuses on one of the most fascinating and painful stories of Israel. This is the story of the ill-fated steamer Altalena and its cargo of some 1000 Jewish volunteers and fighters and tons of guns, ammunition and light artillery.

Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the region had seen a string of civil wars between Arabs and Israelis over the creation of the new Israeli homeland. On the Israeli side these wars had been fought by militias lead by Menachem Begin using weapons scavenged from wherever they could be found. When independence was declared the second phase of the Arab-Israeli war (or the War of Independence) began and Premier David Ben Gurion worked to consolidate the militias into the Israeli Defense Forces or IDF.

Predictably in the chaos of the newly formed state and under the influence of severe Arab threat many of the militias were reluctant to lay down their arms and declare loyalty to a new chain of command. The Altalena sailed from France with arms and volunteers to support these militias but were unwilling or unable to immediately concede their command to the IDF. On another level, new premier Ben Gurion was now pitted against militia leader Begin. Ben Gurion demanded a sovereign fighting force reporting ultimately to him.

This rivalry on both a personal level and a military level set the stage for the landing of the Altalena on Israeli soil. It was met by IDF forces and pinned down on the beach in mid-June, 1948. The fighters would not be allowed to land their weapons without a complete surrender to the new Israeli state. The story of the following battle between the two Israeli forces is surreal, even in the unbelievable confusion of war. Eventually the ship was shelled at great risk to the population in the area and all hands surrendered.

The debate still goes on as to whom was to blame with one side claiming Ben Gurion failed to negotiate effectively and the other claiming Begin started the battle to establish his own power base.

This film is a dramatization of these events, combined with archival footage of the incident. The storyline tells of the extreme mixed feelings of the loyal and brave forces firing at their comrades. In fact, some soldiers from the IDF joined the forces pinned down on the beach. Upon the surrender of the pinned down forces, all were imprisoned but released months later to joint he IDF.

Having stated the importance and drama of the story, the film itself is shot in what appears to be low definition video and the production quality is extremely poor. The acting and costumes appear to be the products of a low-budget/no-budget film school. There is little preparation for the audience to appreciate the drama of the story and if they have not studied the history before seeing the film their appreciation will be extremely limited.

But even in this first cut format, the story is there. Without this film most people in the world never have learned the tale of the Altalena and the tragedy and excitement of the first days of Israeli independence. If you get a chance to see this film, don’t miss it. But be sure and study the mesmerizing and fateful events that led up to it before you set foot in the theatre.
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