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Young Israelis face life in the army

The real world 

Young Israelis face life in the army

Youth culture was invented in America sometime between Elvis and The Graduate, and its cultural appurtenances are everywhere on the globe: tattoos, cell phones, newer than new music and adventures with sex and drugs. In this respect, kids in Israel today are little different from their American counterparts. But there is one critical difference. Several years ago I spent three months backpacking in the Andean countries of South America. I met only one or two Americans the entire trip, but I encountered hundreds of Israelis, virtually all of whom had recently been discharged from the army. Now they were letting their hair grow again and cutting loose for a year before entering college at the age that American college students are graduating.

I found a surprising diversity of political opinions among the people I met, and I was struck by a general political awareness, maturity and wisdom that's largely lacking in Americans of the same age, or of any age (indeed, most of the Israelis were far better informed than me). On one occasion, I spent a long rainy afternoon in Lima, Peru playing backgammon with a smart and worldly 22-year-old ex-submarine officer who was preparing to enter his freshman year at Brandeis. I remember marveling at just how conspicuously different this guy would be from his classmates from the sheltered American suburbs.

This disconnect between America's youth and America's global political presence continues today as we fight a war with an army composed largely of our underclass while the rest of us are under little pressure to accept sacrifices or even to pay attention.

Two Duke University seniors, Maital Guttman and Madeleine Sackler, will be showing a 45-minute documentary about an Israeli youth culture that's both similar and strikingly different from our own. Titled Mechina: A Preparation, their film profiles six Israeli teenagers who are doing a year of volunteering, work and study--called mechina, the Hebrew word for "preparation"--in advance of doing their compulsory military service.

Speaking over beers at Durham's Federal bar last Thursday, Guttman and Sackler say they wanted to pursue the issue beyond the often sterile debates they encountered in their academic setting. "People throw these catch phrases around, like 'You can't fight for peace,'" says Sackler, a slender woman who sports a pierced eyebrow. "In America, we're so far removed from conflict. The majority of Americans are not affected, but it's different in Israel."

Guttman, a red-haired, gregarious woman, also admits to some frustration with the Israeli debate on campus, a debate that she feels tends toward caricature. "Many documentaries on the subject of Middle East, unfortunately, perpetuate misunderstanding," Guttman says. In particular, she cites a film she saw recently on the Duke campus, Jacqueline Rose's Dangerous Liaisons: Israel and U.S.A.

"When we hear about Israel on the news, it's never-ending conflict. We wanted to go beyond conflict, because my reality is beyond that," Guttman says. "They're seen as inhumane occupiers; we see them in tanks."

Guttman has a very personal stake in the film, because foremost among its subjects is her first cousin Amitai, a good-looking and casually charismatic young man. Despite the popular impression of Israeli soldiers, Guttman says, "My cousin and his friends are left-wing peaceniks."

Initially, what emerges from Mechina is a kind of Israeli version of MTV's The Real World, with a gaggle of attractive and hip-looking kids living communally in Jaffa (Tel Aviv's sister city on the coast) and spending a lot of time swimming, strumming guitars and talking. But when they talk to Guttman and her camera, they reveal concerns about reconciling their often dovish political opinions, their quickly vanishing youth and the reality that they will soon be taking up arms.

Although they grope with serious issues, they're also very much teenagers at the cusp of adult ethical issues. At one point, Guttman asks her cousin Amitai, who hopes to enter the prestigious world of combat pilots (a nine-year commitment that provides a launching pad for subsequent political careers), "Can you be responsible for the deaths of innocent people?"

The response is an uncomfortable shrug. "I can't answer that," he says.

As Guttman herself says in the film, "Before doing this film, I couldn't imagine the difference between their experience and mine in college. I was there shooting with my video camera and they were talking about learning how to shoot guns."

Guttman is the Israeli-born daughter of American parents who lived in Israel until she was 7, before spending her adolescence in Greensboro (where her father is the rabbi of that city's only Reform temple). She met Sackler, a native of Greenwich, Conn., while the two were studying in New Zealand. Although Guttman is a social science major and Sackler a psych major, the two discovered a common interest in film, and a common interest in the torturous peace process in Israel. They decided to make a film about Guttman's cousin Amitai and his friends, as they spent their year of preparation between high school and the army.

In truth, most Israeli teenagers go directly from high school into the military. The mechina depicted in the film is something only a small fraction of kids opt for. And, as Guttman says, this year of service and contemplation is largely a product of the Movement for Progressive Judaism. Known colloquially as the Reform Movement, it's chiefly composed of American Jews who are carving out a political and religious space in an Israeli culture that tends to skew to the extremes of orthodoxy and secularism.

Guttman and Sackler are breaking some academic ground with this film. "It's the first time Duke has accepted a non-text-based document as an honors thesis," Guttman says. Indeed, Guttman agrees, Mechina might become the most widely "read" undergraduate honors thesis of all time.

Guttman's faculty advisor on the project is John Jackson, a filmmaker and professor in the cultural anthropology department at Duke. Speaking by telephone, Jackson says, "In the fields of ethnography and cultural anthropology, there are many precedents" for presenting professional research via film. But as far as undergraduates like Guttman are concerned, "As far as I know, this is the first time a film has been presented in partial fulfillment of a degree [in this department]," Jackson says.

Guttman and Sackler are keenly aware of how changing technology has made their film possible. "Ten years ago, we couldn't have made this film, but now the equipment is so consumer-friendly that it's possible," Guttman says. Working under the supervision of Jackson, Guttman and Sackler raised over $14,000 for the project. Guttman began filming in Israel last summer, three weeks after she bought her camera. They logged the footage last fall and both traveled to Israel in January to record Amitai's departure for military training.

Although long interested in film, neither woman had studied it much nor had they made a film before. In truth, as filmmakers, they're still learning: The sound throughout Mechina is of variable quality and the camera is often shakily handheld. Still, Guttman's camerawork gets more assured as the film progresses, and she achieves an excellent effect at the film's climactic event--a huge peace rally--by rotating her camera in a 360-degree pan at the center of a circle of kids singing "Imagine." Sackler learned to edit on this project, and she makes effective and judicious use of post-production digital effects.

Earlier this month, both Guttman and Sackler spent time at the Full Frame fest, where the two undergraduates found themselves talking with filmmakers and, yes, making contacts with distributors. After graduation, Sackler will pursue an internship opportunity in San Diego and think about another possible project that emerged from a lecture on death and dying she attended. Guttman, meanwhile, has already secured a fellowship through the Center for Documentary Studies that commences next January.

In the meantime, Guttman plans to polish and promote Mechina, and pursue distribution options--possibly by moving to New York, the center of the documentary filmmaking world.

Mechina: A Preparation will screen at Duke's Griffith Theater on Wednesday, April 20 at 7:30 p.m.

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