Children of the Sun [subtitled]

Children of the Sun

There are times when being conscious of the filmmaking when you’re watching a film can be a good thing. Especially since I make small scale films myself, sometimes it’s just a matter of noticing and admiring things that work well, wondering if I could do something like that, etc.

But the majority of the time I think filmmaking is like the expression about a good referee or umpire, that the better they’re doing their job, the less likely you are to notice them. The filmmaking should affect you a certain way, should make you feel certain things, but you shouldn’t be more aware of that process itself than of the substance of the movie.

The problem I have with the documentary Children of the Sun about the early Jewish kibbutzim movement is that I was way too conscious throughout of the filmmaking style and editing decisions, both what works and what, mostly, doesn’t.

This film really goes to an extreme to avoid the talking heads syndrome for its interviews. Almost all the audio for the film is interviews with elderly people who were part of the kibbutzim movement from the 1930s (in Palestine, before there even was an Israel) to the 1970s. But they are never shown (until faces are flashed on the screen at the very end of the film before the credits—I assume that’s them). For the most part you don’t know if they’re being interviewed alone, as couples, all in a big group, or what. You can’t see their facial expressions or body language as they talk, nor how they react visually to each other (assuming there’s a group).

Meanwhile, visually pretty much 100% of the film is old home movie type footage of kibbutz life. Occasionally it overlaps directly with the interviews, as when they’re picking themselves out as children in the footage, but more often it’s just the general themes or topics that overlap. So an interviewee will talk about being frightened at night as a child, and you’ll see a child looking distraught lying in bed in the kibbutz. Not the same person, not the same incident, just roughly the same phenomenon.

What I found especially distracting (and one review I read praised) is that periodically sound effects are added to the footage. These are all silent clips, but sounds are dubbed in. So you see a child brushing her teeth, and you hear the sound of teeth brushing. Or you see a woman holding a baby and probably singing, and you hear a woman’s voice singing a lullaby. Or you see someone sitting at a table turning a newspaper page, and you hear the crinkling of paper.

There’s no attempt to be thorough and try to recreate every sound that likely would have been present in every scene; the dubs are just inserted here and there.

I thought it sounded cheesy. Because it typically wasn’t close enough to really be convincing, it again made me way too conscious of the filmmaking device itself.

This is silent footage. Let’s accept it for what it is. People regard Ted Turner’s colorizing of black and white movies objectionable; I actually found this a lot more intrusive.

There’s plenty to like about the old footage. I wouldn’t want that simply to be eliminated from the film. And there’s interesting stuff in the interviews. I just didn’t care for how they were combined.

I would have much preferred to see the people being interviewed for, say, 25%-50% of the time they were talking. The rest of the time, yes, show the old footage of kibbutz life while they’re talking (without the phony audio). Use that footage selectively to illustrate what’s being said. Don’t feel compelled to have something from that footage on screen every moment of the interviews, even when the best available footage only has a tenuous connection to what the interviewee is talking about.

I also would have been OK with maybe interviewing other people besides the kibbutz veterans, or adding other visuals besides the old footage, but I’m not all that troubled by the artistic decision not to do so.

This isn’t a topic that I find hugely interesting, but it does hold some interest for me. So I’m not a super hard audience for this documentary. But I had trouble connecting with the disembodied voices. And I couldn’t focus as well as I wanted to on the substance of what they were saying, since simultaneously I was processing visuals that only vaguely related to that, distractingly artificial sound effects, and subtitles. I was having to work too much to stick with this movie.

As far as the substance, the observations of the folks looking back are mixed. There are more critical remarks than supportive remarks about the kibbutz experiment, but there are plenty of both.

As explained and shown, the kibbutz lifestyle in the beginning really was radically different from “normal” life. The focus was on creating an environment that would mold children to be a certain kind of person.

This new kind of person was, above all, to be communal-minded and not individualistic. I thought one of the most striking comments from the interviewees came from a woman who says that after deciding to leave the kibbutz, one of the hardest adjustments for her was to start sentences with the word “I.” It was so ingrained in her not to see things from the individual perspective that she wasn’t comfortable even using the linguistic tools for doing so.

Going along with that, there was a lack of privacy from birth on. The children did everything in groups, including bathing, sleeping, and going to the toilet.

Personal relationships between individuals rather than among all members of the group were actively discouraged. Most notably, parents were limited in how much they were allowed to interact with their children.

Intellectual pursuits, if not explicitly disparaged, were disvalued compared to athletics and physical labor. That one surprised me. The people establishing these communes were presumably left wing intellectuals trying to achieve some abstract philosophical ideal, yet instead of trying to create similar type people they seemed to be aiming to create the kind of working class conformist jocks who beat up people like them before heading off to the military.

Most of the interviewees now reject the child raising philosophy as clearly perverse. Not all—one fellow says the conventional way is unnatural and it makes perfect sense to him that kids should be with nannies and each other so the parents don’t have to devote all their time and resources to them. He clearly liked the part time parenting thing. But the others are sheepish that they ever went along with it.

One interviewee raised in that environment laments that after leaving the kibbutz and having kids of his own, he didn’t know how to love them, because he’d never been loved.

I don’t know, though. Only someone who’s reasonably evolved emotionally would even think they could be insufficiently loving. I suspect he’s comparing what he feels with some imagined ideal that he thinks “regular” people achieve with their children, though they mostly in fact don’t. And I don’t see that the kibbutz children were unloved, including by their parents. If anything it sounds like the parents were especially conscious of maximizing the quality of their time with their children since the quantity was restricted.

Even though the bulk of the interviewees now reject the kibbutz experiment, there’s still a certain emotional attachment to it for a lot of them. Even if they see it as a failure, they see it as a noble, admirable failure. One woman, despite her criticisms, says she wants to be buried at the kibbutz because that’s where her heart is.

I can see that. I mostly admire the effort too. When one interviewee mentions that when he announced his decision to leave the kibbutz to one of the kibbutz officials, the man broke down and cried and left the room because it hurt so much that another person was abandoning the experiment, that hit home.

The kibbutz life bears some slight but unnerving resemblance to Khmer Rouge-style extreme totalitarian social experiments, but as the interviewees note when this comparison is mentioned, there’s a big difference between forcing people into something coercively, and people coming together voluntarily to try to work out a better way to live.

These things fail in part because they’re flawed, yes, but I think the force of conformity of the larger community and the world as a whole is what dooms them.

I’ve made this point in one or more previous of these essays I’ve written, but there’s just a higher standard for non-conformists, whether individuals or groups. Failures and bad consequences are unnoticed or easily forgiven if you’re doing the expected thing, doing what “everybody” does. If you’re not, then the opposite is true.

If you lose the game after going for the field goal in a situation where it’s very much conventional wisdom to go for the field goal, your job is safe. If you lose the game after declining the field goal in a situation where it’s very much conventional wisdom to go for the field goal, there’s a good chance you’ll be out of a job.

I can’t say that the collapse of the kibbutzim movement (this really radical version of it anyway) proves it was wrong or that conventional ways of doing things are superior. Conventional ways of doing things may be more attractive at a certain level, and people might be inclined to fall back toward them when they’re not forced at the point of a gun by Cultural Revolution zealots not to, but that may be no more meaningful than that people given a choice between healthy eating and an unhealthy Western diet of Big Macs and processed foods far more often choose the latter. Sometimes we make choices because we’re weak or stupid rather than because what we’re choosing is better.

Who knows what would happen after twenty generations if raising children communally was as widespread and perceived as “normal” as the nuclear family is now. Would people be emotionally better adjusted? In terms of social justice, economic justice, war and peace, etc., would that world be better or worse than ours? I think it’s an open question.

I’m sympathetic to the sort of thing they were trying to do, because I think if the human race is to avoid annihilating itself, if there really is going to be significant growth, it’ll likely take a true paradigm shift in how we live and how we treat each other. I’m a big believer in a lot of Gandhian stuff. I think the great moral reformers don’t ask us to do what we’re already doing only with slight incremental improvements, but to think outside the box, to aim high, to become conscious of all the inconsistencies between how societies function and how in some sense we realize people should live together and love each other and treat each other.

Maybe the conventional ways of doing things are 25% on the money and 75% horrific, and the radical kibbutz alternative is 40% on the money and 60% horrific. So there’s as much or more that I dislike about it as that I like, but I don’t know that it was a “failure” in the sense of proving to be worse than what it sought to replace. And I would hope that people will keep trying. Whether anyone can come up with something much closer to the ideal, and whether we, being weak and stupid, will choose to live that way if they do—two very different questions—I hope there will always be people who won’t settle for slight incremental, “practical,” “realistic” changes in the mess we’ve made of the world

Perhaps unavoidably given the format, the style of the interviews in the movie is impressionistic and anecdotal. It’s interesting on that level, but it’s very limited in terms of understanding the actual history and consequences of the kibbutzim movement, why things happened the way they did, what percentage of the people who experienced it favor this or that about it or oppose this or that about it, how correlated that is with demographic factors like gender and generation, etc.

I know this movie can’t be classified as a failure due to not being informative in that way, because that’s not its purpose, as it’s not the purpose of most documentaries. It’s just providing a series of scattershot subjective observations and reminiscences, aimed as much or more at an emotional as intellectual target. That’s fine. But for my personal tastes I suppose I would have liked something more informative a little better.

I gather that the filmmaker was raised in a kibbutz and that the interviewees include his parents. So it’s got a nice personal feel to it, that he’s wanting to honor his parents and their generation, and preserve their stories.

I very much respect the project, and I think the topic is interesting and worthwhile, but the execution of Children of the Sun just didn’t engage me as much as I would have liked.

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