What if a museum is not only telling the story of the objects in its collection, but also of the society around it?
That’s the premise of “The Museum,” an Israeli documentary that the IAC Cinematec is showing at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly (see box). The titular museum is the Israel Museum. For director Ran Tal (who will be presenting the film in Tenafly), the Israel Museum, with its combination of art and archeology, with its location in Jerusalem in sight of the Knesset, is a window into the bigger story of Israel.
Mr. Tal said that this film is the third in a series of documentaries that explore his country through “places, spaces, and institutions, rather than one protagonist. It’s actually observing and watching a place with multiple layers of meaning in order to understand many other things about Israeli society,” he said.
The 74-minute film is the result of more than 100 hours of filming over the course of 18 months. Haaretz described it as “a sensitive, gloomy, thought-provoking, dreamy, sometimes optimistic and sometimes humorous depiction of today’s Israel, of this complex and complicated place weighted down with history.”
The first in this sort-of-trilogy of documentaries was “Children of the Sun,” which came out in 2007 and won the best documentary award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, among other awards. In “Children of the Sun,” Mr. Tal, who was born on a kibbutz in northern Israel in 1963, tells the stories of his parent’s generation of kibbutzniks, who grew up wholly in the communal children’s home.
“They were born in the 20s and 30s and lived all their life in the traditional kibbutz,” he said. “That kibbutz doesn’t exist anymore. It’s different today.”
The film’s video is amateur footage of kibbutz life. The audio focuses on the emotional impact of a communal childhood; the voiceovers are provided by the adults those children grew up to become. They’re now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and they look back.
“The Garden of Eden,” the second film in the group, focused on Gan HaShlosha, one of Israel’s most popular national parks for Israelis. “It’s not part of the tourist circuit,” Mr. Tal said.
“After these two films I wanted to go to a place, an institution that’s much more in the center of Israel’s national life. It should be in Jerusalem. I’m happy in the end I succeeded to get permission from the Israel museum,” he said.
It was a three-year process — of which only 18 months was spent filming.
It began with research. “I need to understand the field, and make my own research about museums in general, about the discourse, about the history of museums in Israel, and the history of the Israel Museum, and so on,” Mr. Tal said. “Only after I feel I understand something about the field do I go in with the camera. It took me a long time to understand what kind of film I want to do and how it’s going to look. I tried to create my own rules, to have some kind of aesthetic language. I have my intuition. It takes a long time to shape it.”
In the end, in the film, “you can see, feel, and understand many of the fears, hopes, needs, mythology, and demons of Israeli society. It’s not about representing Israel. It’s more about trying to understand what’s the core, what’s the identity of this very complicated society.
“It’s not a classic film about a museum. It’s not the kind of museum genre film that’s focused only on the museum’s work and collection. The work and collection gives me the frame to understand something that I believe is bigger than any museum. The museum wall, the visitors, the creators, the restoration, the guards, and everything — it’s for me an opportunity to portray and speak about Israel,” he said.
The film has played in several museums, in Israel and in Paris and Boston. Mr. Tal will head to Houston after appearing in Tenafly for a screening at the museum there.
But the film had a wider release, too. Lev Cinema, one of Israel’s largest theater chains, showed it.
Mr. Tal teaches film at Tel Aviv University, where he earned his degree in film in 1994, as well as at Sapir College, in the Negev near Sderot. He is co-founder of Takriv — that’s Hebrew for “close up” — an online journal of documentary film making. (A small portion, containing interviews with Israeli documentary directors, is translated into English.)
“I’m very proud of this magazine,” he said.
Why is documentary cinema important?
“I don’t know if it’s important,” he said. “I don’t know if art is important. Documentary cinema is part of the art world. It’s another passion of the human race, to research the world and try to understand its existence. We have science and we have art: two different methods to try to understand our existence. Documentary cinema is part of this. It goes deep into the same questions as literature and other arts.
“I don’t know if it’s important, but I guess it’s necessary.”