The Israeli documentary “The Museum,” about the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, was given a special screening by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival last month at the High Museum of Art. It largely ignores the vast catalogue of one of the great artistic storehouses of the world.
Instead, the film, which was part of the year-round AJFF Selects program, explores what the Israeli director, Ran Tal, calls the crucial question of identity in the Jewish state.
Instead of focusing on the Rembrandts and the Chagalls that line the walls or examining the precious collection of Dead Sea Scrolls that are housed there, Tal focuses on the human beings who inhabit this showcase of Jewish art and culture.
Out of the conversations of a broad cross section of Israeli society, Tal weaves an impressionistic portrait of how art and history illuminate the national character.
Strewn through the loose narrative are scenes of how the military uses the museum to indoctrinate trainees, how Arab and Jewish curators wrestle with the culture of Palestinians, and how visitors, ordinary and not so ordinary, such as a visiting group of blind adults, encounter this impressive collection of culture and history.
The film was nominated for an Ophir, the Israeli equivalent of an Academy Award, for best documentary in 2017. We spoke with Tal recently from his office in Israel.
AJT: How difficult was it to do this film?
Tal: The process altogether took about three years. Only about 5 percent of the film I shot made it into the final picture. It takes a long time to understand the place. It’s a huge place and the problem was how to structure the film.
AJT: The film is not about a single character or episode. How did you decide on what you wanted to include?
Tal: The woman that helped me most was a blind woman, whom we see at the very beginning of the film as she experiences the art. She’s listening to the description of a work of art and by listening to the description, she seems to understand it much better than the people who see it with their eyes.
She understands it better because she sees the work of art as a story. Those who are explaining the art are helping her understand what they are seeing through the stories they tell. And I think this was a very important point for me to understand, that in many ways the museum was a huge machine of story making.
The museum, it seems to me, has to make a story from objects and from art to tell a story to people that is relevant. This is the role of the Israel Museum. Whether the art was created a hundred years ago or five thousand years ago, the goal is to make it relevant to the viewer. And in many ways I’m also a storyteller. So I think this was first of my key points.
The second one came when I went back and read the speeches when the museum opened. The prime minister, then Levi Eshkol, said that this museum has a definite role in Israeli society and if you understand that role or not, that is what makes it different, and in many ways, more interesting than many others, even those with much better collections.
AJT: What role does the Israel Museum play in Israeli life?
Tal: I think the leaders of the country wanted to do this museum because they needed a place for the national story. It is a story which touches on all these very different kinds of Jews that come from so many places and they needed a story about that. And I think that’s what makes it so interesting when you compare it to other very good museums around the world. It’s a space that explores the question of identity in a country like Israel that has so many different identities. I think it’s a very Jewish question – the question of identity.
AJT: How important is that question in Israel?
Tal: The question of identity is crucial for the Israeli society. Moreover, it explores it in Jerusalem among the Israeli society’s symbols of state like the Knesset, the Supreme Court and Hebrew University. There’s also a huge collection of archeological objects from the region and a collection that’s left from Jewish life in the 20th century that has disappeared in tragic ways. And then there’s the art, and it’s quite good. Together, it allows the museum to ask a very sophisticated question in very interesting ways.
“The Museum” is available for public screenings through www.ruthfilms.com.