Whether they be historic or recent, Abraham Lincoln or Yitzhak Rabin, world-changing political assassinations leave scars that never go away, national wounds so devastating they not only can but have to be examined over and over again.
Which is why, for the second time in as many months, an excellent new documentary on murdered Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, this one called “Rabin In His Own Words,” appears on the scene.
If the previous film, Amos Gitai’s somber “Rabin, The Last Day,” concentrated with unrelenting solemnity on the time immediately leading up to and following that 20-year-old tragedy, this latest film has a different focus as well as a different sensibility.
True to its title and to the claim of director Erez Laufer that he’s created “an autobiography of sorts” for Rabin, “In His Own Words” is a deeply involving look at the man’s entire life, using archival footage, home movies, private letters but most of all filmed interviews Rabin gave, to let us hear him tell his own story just about from cradle to grave.
Introspective and not conventionally charismatic, saying at the outset “nothing is harder than defining yourself,” Rabin here speaks in a thoughtful, honest, articulate voice leavened with sharp humor. When a newsman asks him what it’s like to be prime minister, the self-deprecating reply is, “You get used to it.”
Because director Laufer is an accomplished editor, with credits including Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “The War Room” and Laura Poitras’ “My Country, My Country” as well as this film, “In His Own Words” has a fluidity and coherence that belie its numerous sources.
Likely inevitably, given the nature of Rabin’s life and work, “In His Own Words” also functions as a history of the state of Israel, where it came from and where it appears to be going.
Born in Jerusalem in 1922, Rabin grew up in a working-class, determinedly antimaterialistic family spearheaded by his political activist mother. “Talking about money was a disgrace,” he remembered. “If we didn’t finish our oatmeal for breakfast, it would be on our plate the next day.”
Rabin’s mother died when he was 16, and he tells an especially moving story of trying to reach her side before the end. Rare newsreel footage shows a significant public attendance at her Tel Aviv funeral, a poignant foreshadowing of things to come.
The future army chief of staff, always most comfortable in the presence of soldiers, planned not a military career but one as a farmer on a kibbutz.
The onset of World War II, however, followed by the Israeli war of independence, changed his mind. Rabin speaks movingly of having to send 16-year-old boys on dangerous missions, and, when one such group was wiped out, reveals that those deaths were the deciding factor in his decision to stay in the army.
Rabin’s stories are refreshingly candid, ranging from discussing the nervous breakdown he had as head of the Israeli Defense Forces in the days leading up to the Six Day War, to personal anecdotes like meeting his future wife Leah when she was a 16-year-old high school student and having to confess to Betty Ford at a White House state dinner that he had no idea how to dance.
Though he didn’t start out that way, Rabin became a staunch advocate for peace, speaking from experience when he said, “Peace has its dangers, but it is better than the bitter certainties of war.” One of the things “In His Own Words” makes clear is that his rapprochement with Egypt over Sinai in 1975 was a prelude to the Oslo accords he signed with the Palestinian Authority in 1993.
Interestingly enough, given the factors that led to his assassination, “In His Own Words” shows Rabin to have always been a staunch opponent of Israeli settlement on the West Bank. As far bank as 1976 he referred to the Gush Emonim settlers as “a cancer in the social and democratic tissue of the state of Israel” and later called settlers “one of the greatest dangers to the Jewish state. These people will bring disaster unto Israel.”
Considering Rabin’s fate, it’s not surprising that director Laufer chose to start this film with a quote from near the end of the first of two terms Rabin served as prime minister. “I did my job, especially in terms of striving for peace,” he insists. “I was the prime minister with the best chance for achieving peace.” That, tragically, continues to be the case.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; opens May 13 at Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino