Berlinale 2022 review: 1341 Frames of Love and War (Ran Tal)

“The film ends shortly after on this sour symbolic note: what has become of Israel made it impossible for one of its most important observers to go on watching, thus turning the rest of us blind.”

Micha Bar-Am is one of the most pre-eminent figures in Israeli photography, having covered – for Magnum Photos and The New York Times, among other media – the whole history of his country, which he himself has been a part of since his childhood. Born in Germany in 1930, he moved to Palestine with his parents after the Nazis came to power, and was later drafted in the war that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. 1341 Frames of Love and War by Ran Tal is a recollection of Bar-Am’s photography career, seen almost entirely through his own eyes. The pictures he took are the only images shown on screen, while we hear his voice as he is interviewed by the filmmaker, together with his wife and archivist Orna (their sons intervene as well, briefly).

The fact that two people speak in the interview considerably changes the tone of the film, which is as far from a tedious hagiographic account as you can get; just as Orna is as far as possible from a mere sidekick to her husband, even though she put aside her own artistic career for her family (a decision made in all consciousness, since ‘being born a woman is a heavy burden’, as she states bluntly). Orna interrupts and contradicts Micha whenever she deems it necessary because she thinks his words are incorrect or important details are missing. This dynamic creates quite a few comedic moments, for instance when Orna and Micha cannot agree on the timeline of a particular incident, causing the editing of the movie to go back and forth between different sequences of the photographs used to illustrate the chain of events.

At other times, Orna’s remarks move the ‘Memory versus Archive’ (as Micha puts it) debate to a more serious ground, when Micha’s omissions and hesitations are related to Israel’s political stances and their effect on his work. Bar-Am has been a war photographer since the 1960s, after having covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann only partially – he explains to Ran Tal that he quit in the middle of it because he felt it was too much of a ‘big production’, which bothered him. Bar-Am would remain in this torn state of mind, between his loyalty and his critical thinking, throughout his career. Every souvenir he shares of his missions alongside the Israel Defense Forces (he covered all their military operations from the Six-Day War to the Lebanon War) contains a twist in its narrative, which turns the factual account into something more personal and unsettling.

At one point the film emphasizes this feeling with the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane (in a very different way from The Matrix Resurrections, but equally powerful), used as a manifestation of the slow burn madness creeping into the minds of the Israeli population, with witnesses of war such as Bar-Am in the front row. Most of the time Ran Tal leaves it to Bar-Am’s words to leave their painful trace on us. He speaks about army censorship, the sense of sometimes not watching a war but ‘hunters and their prey’, and of a more nagging feeling – how war photography seems more and more unethical as the acts of war become ‘atrocities’. The final straw for Micha Bar-Am was during the Sabra and Shatila massacre, after which he simply could not continue anymore. As there are no more photos to be shown, the film ends shortly after on this sour symbolic note: what has become of Israel made it impossible for one of its most important observers to go on watching, thus turning the rest of us blind.

1341 Frames of Love and War is supported by yesDOCU