Ambassador Yehuda Avner, author of the 2010 best-seller, “The Prime Ministers” and subject of Richard Trank’s new documentary, “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” has a twinkle in his eye, a magnetic, on-camera presence, and a melodious voice.
Trank’s directorial instinct to focus his lens on Avner as a “talking head” is spot on: he devours center stage as if it were the role he had been waiting in the wings to play.
“From the moment I met the Ambassador, I knew this approach would work because he is such an intimate, lively storyteller,” Trank explained via email.
During his five decades as personal aide and speechwriter to Israeli leaders (including five prime ministers), Avner bore witness to some of the most candid and private moments during some of the most critical events in Israel’s history. “I used to be the note taker,” Avner said in a phone interview. “I prepared executive summaries for the prime ministers, but I never threw away those original notes. This is the core of the book and the movie.”
Director Trank has divided Avner’s enormous memoir into two films. “The Pioneers” opens with Avner’s teenage involvement in Zionist youth activities in his native Manchester, England in the 1940’s, and ends with Golda Meir’s resignation following the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
(“Soldiers and Peacemakers,” which picks up the story in 1974, will open in Spring 2014.) Avner narrates as Israel’s cinematic chronology unfolds. The footage includes historical newsreels and videotapes of high-level whispered asides and passed notes. The effect is of crouching by a closed door and peeking through a keyhole to an inner sanctum of power, privilege and privacy. The film’s most memorable scenes are Avner’s eyewitness recollections. We hear how violinist Leopold Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s nephew and a member of Avner’s army unit, grabbed his instrument and passionately played “Hava Nagilah” to dancing crowds on Israel Independence Day. We eavesdrop on Prime Minister Eshkol and President Lyndon Johnson as the kibbutznik and the rancher bond over the birthing of a calf at LBJ’s Texas ranch. We see Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger in 1973 huddled in conversation over Israel’s request for American aid, connecting as “fellow Jews.“ This is not the stuff of history books. Yet according to Avner, his book has been adopted as part of the curriculum of many Jewish high schools.
“Most people below a certain age know nothing about Israel’s history. I wanted to bring back to life the personalities of the prime ministers,” Avner said. He is pleased that the release of the film has led more people to read the book.
Don’t miss this important and entertaining film. And then think about reading the book.
Pictured above: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan met their troops October 21, 1973 in the Golan Heights, during the Yom Kippur War.