Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!
These were the words that kept running through my mind as I watched Lavi Ben Gal’s delightfully eccentric, utterly original and often laugh-out-loud funny movie Eight Twenty Eight. To call it a “documentary” doesn’t do justice to Ben Gal’s creative vision, for that word suggests a straight-up journalistic-historical approach to the material, where the writer-director has produced a cinematic concoction that is far more subjective, self-conscious and deliberately elusive—part personal essay, part memoir, part commentary on the slippery art of making movie memories of the past. And it’s damn fun to watch.
I’ve yoked this film under my sub-genre of “privatization cinema”, but even here, Eight Twenty Eight defies categorization. Nitzanim, the kibbutz were Ben Gal grew up, on the coastal plain between Gaza and Tel Aviv, has undergone some form of shinui (or “change”), but we’re never told when or what. We just discover the evidence of the change as the director goes wandering around the kibbutz after years of living in Tel Aviv and only visiting infrequently; there are Thai guest workers and the dining hall is run by Russian-speaking contractors and kibbutzniks set up second-hand shops on the grounds of their home.
Ben Gal has both a goal and a deadline in his journey home: he has received a letter from the kibbutz managers, after turning 28, that informs him that he has a year to decide whether he wants to be a member or not. The film chronicles that year, as he tries to match his memories of the past with the kibbutz he now encounters. His interior monologue, at times Woody Allen-like in its self-conscious worrying, narrates this journey, as he admits that “memory—especially my memory—shouldn’t be relied on 100%.”
His focus as a filmmaker falls not on quotes and opinions from traditional interviews but rather on obscure yet poetic details of the kibbutz that evoke memories (a patch of grass, the junk yard he once played in, the various pathways through the kibbutz, the way his father walks, a photo from 1914 of his grandmother as a young girl in Poland, the faded pattern of her playing cards) and seemingly random moments from the quiet lives of the remaining members. Nitzanim, caught in Ben Gal’s lens, feels like a ghost town at times. And yet it still comes to life for the seasonal round of collective festivals, although even here the kibbutz struggles: by the end, the members celebrate Passover as individual families, not a community, and have to rely on the Thai guest workers for entertainment at Shavuot. “The ceremonies keep happening,” Ben Gal observes, “as if without them, the kibbutz would cease to exist.”
Ben Gal is comically ambivalent about his memories of these festivals, during which the children play a prominent role in dances and songs. “As a kid, I loved and hated them,” he recalls, and then, as he films youngsters practicing the “Dance of the Four Species”, he says in a deadpan delivery: “Thanks to this dance, I discovered my allergy to figs.”
Later, he goes to the kibbutz synagogue to film elderly members preparing to mark Rosh Hashana and panics when he realizes that they’re expecting him to stay as the tenth Jewish male to make up the minyan. Even when “The Mexicans” arrive to fill the quota, Ben Gal worries it will look bad if he slips away. When he visits the kitchen where he once did a monthly shift, the hired staff who now run it invite him inside to film but then think he’s weird for shooting footage of the floors and the pots. “Do you think he speaks Russian?” one hired worker asks another about Ben Gal. (He does apparently, or at least got the sequence translated.) “I think he’s cuckoo. Tell him to leave—he’s getting in the way.” The scene is both absurdly hilarious and touching: the filmmaker, already ambivalent about whether to stay or go, is not wanted on his own kibbutz even by the hired help. At least the crusty old gatekeeper of the kibbutz, whom Ban Gal feared as a child, encourages him to remain and raise a family.
Throughout, kibbutzniks offer suggestions to Ben Gal on how to make his movie: Add this subtitle, Film me for 30 seconds, Now stop. Other people direct the film as much as he does, and the fourth wall between the filmmaker and his subjects constantly dissolves, just as the line between his memories and his present-day encounters begins to blur. The most astonishing moment comes when Ben Gal—who says he never lived in his parents’ home, but always in the communal children’s houses—is told by his mother and father that, no, in fact he did live with them for at least three years while growing up. And yet he has no memory of this time.
Both the filmmaker’s journey and the movie conclude with… well, I couldn’t possibly give away the ending. I can only say that it feels perfectly suited to the unique mood and character of both this wonderfully eccentric film and its creator. Track down Eight Twenty Eight and see it if you can.