An invaluable historical document, Russian-made 1913 docu “The Life of the Jews in Palestine” was assumed lost for decades until a print was discovered in 1997 in France’s National Film Archives. Now restored to excellent condition, the feature provides a fascinating, if highly selective, travelogue-style tour of Jewish settlements, historic sites and the surrounding landscapes nearly a century ago. Fests worldwide, particularly those centering on Jewish, human rights and silent material, will find this a compelling artifact; educational outlets can avail themselves of the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s vid release, which features additional background info (researched and scripted by Ya’Kov Gross) as well as a musical score (by Eli Aharon).
Pic was originally produced by the Odessa-based HaMizrah Society, which survived long enough for a brief life in Russia’s post-revolutionary era, releasing several dramatic features (now lost) based on Yiddish authors’ works. An avowed Zionist, director-producer Noah Sokolovsky created here an unabashed piece of boosterism for the fledgling Jewish settlements in Ottoman Palestine, as it was then called. (Perhaps the Tsarist Russian government approved its funding in the hope of encouraging emigration from its own perennially abused Jewish communities.)
Pic is structured by travel itinerary — Sokolovsky and crew took a ship from Odessa via the Black Sea to Tel Aviv, trekking on through Jerusalem and other cities, villages and rural colonies. While holy sites such as the Wailing Wall, Absalom’s tomb and ancient Jericho are glimpsed, emphasis is on developing autonomy through agricultural and educational systems.
Final sequence captures a large-scale anniversary celebration in Ekron of the first Jewish immigrants’ arrival 30 years before.
There’s no real story arc here, no overt editorializing and no staged sequences (apart from numerous processions for the camera by various school and community groups, including some athletic demonstrations). Rather, pic (which was rediscovered sans original intertitles) simply offers a catalog of sights along its route, each identified onscreen, all painting a well-scrubbed portrait of Jewish life in newly built housing tracts and agrarian communes.
Chamber-of-commerce-style stress on economic and self-governing orderliness (local officials duly line up for posterity) downplays tradition — even, to an extent, religion — in favor of showing off all signs of progressive modernity.
Of course, this picture is hardly complete, and, even at the time, liberal Jews criticized the fact that the feature almost totally ignores the regions’ Arab populations. (Arabs are seen just briefly amongst various work crews.) The then-peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews likewise is not commented upon.
In Hebron, one locale visited here, Arabs — alarmed by more militant new emigres and some inflammatory anti-Zionist rumors — would slaughter some 67 Jewish neighbors just 16 years later.
By era’s standards, photography is exceptional, with well-composed landscape, architectural and medium-to-long-shot crowd views and good occasional use of panoramic pans from elevated points, as well as traveling perspectives from train and boat. (There are no interior shots, presumably due to lighting limitations.) Restoration looks quite splendid, with little deterioration apparent.
Film debuted in 1913 at the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna, going on to screen successfully throughout Russia and Europe. It was shown in New York the next year as “Life in the Holy Land.”