‘The Prime Ministers’ documents Israel’s first leaders

‘The Prime Ministers’ documents Israel’s first leaders

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers” takes an in-depth look at Israel’s early years through four leaders: Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. The documentary is actually the first of two on the prime ministers of Israel. The second, “The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers” is expected to be released in spring 2014.

“The Prime Ministers” had its St. Louis premiere on Nov. 19, which was attended by the film’s Oscar-winning writer/director, Richard Trank, who answered questions after the screening. 

A number of big-name stars served as the voices of these pioneers, with Sandra Bullock reading the words of Golda Meir, Michael Douglas as the voice of Yitzhak Rabin, Leonard Nimoy as Levi Eshkol and Christoph Waltz as Menachem Begin. The film is based on the bestselling book “The Prime Ministers” by Yehuda Avner, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain and Australia and in other capacities through a long career of public service. Avner, who was an eye-witness to much of this history, serves as the film’s narrator. 

In the summer of 2011, when Trank was finishing his film about Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Israel, called “It Is No Dream,” he was approached by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (and co-producer of its films). The rabbi asked Trank about adapting “The Prime Ministers” into a film. 

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 “The book was published almost three years ago and it continues to be a bestseller,” Trank said. “(Avner is) a tremendous writer. The book almost reads like a novel.”  

Trank agreed the bestseller would make a “fabulous documentary” but was concerned about how Avner would do on camera. “Often somebody can be a great writer but not be very good on camera. Fortunately, Yehuda is an unbelievable storyteller,” he said. 

The film has a wealth of archival stills and film footage. The images include not just the usual black-and-white newsreels, but personal home movie footage, in color, from ordinary citizens, which helps paint a picture of life in the new country of Israel.

Trank said the archival research done by his staff is an integral part of creating his films. “One of the things our previous films have been known for are finding these rarely seen or new archival footage, because one of the things we want to be able to do is bring new light and things to people,” he said. “The way you do that is by going the extra mile, not using the same archival footage you see over and over again.”

This well-researched, even exhaustive history of Israel’s early years proceeds as a single narrative, without being broken into chapters by prime ministers. Narrator Avner is an engrossing storyteller but he hardly pauses in his tour-de-force description of the events and people. With few title cards or subtitles identifying the persons on screen, audiences must pay close attention to keep up, something that may make the film a bit challenging for those less familiar with Israel’s early history. 

Despite the fact-packed nature of the film, it has done well in the select cities where it already has opened.   

“The response has been great. It opened theatrically in New York Oct. 18. Within a week, it was in 10 theaters in Manhattan and in surrounding areas,” Trank said. “Normally with documentaries, you are happy to get a week in a city. Basically we have been playing two weeks and more in every place we have opened.”

Trank, who has family ties to St. Louis, is especially thrilled to open the film here.

“This is the first time we are opening theatrically in St. Louis, so we are very, very pleased about that,” he said. 

“My wife is a native of St. Louis…she came to southern California about 20 years ago but her sister still lives in Ladue, Debbie Levens and my brother-in-law Larry Levens, who many people know,” he said. So I often joke that St. Louis became my ‘hometown-in-law’ 10 years ago when Kathy and I got married.”