By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 31, 2008
“Golda’s Balcony” offers an interesting portrait of a fascinating woman, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. The film is a one-woman show, based on a play by William Gibson, with Valerie Harper (best-known as television’s “Rhoda”) playing Meir and the men and women who played a part in her life.
The film held its Southeast premiere as part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 19. Harper, director Jeremy Kagan and producer Yony Cacciotti were on hand for a question-and-answer session after the film. The trio offered insight on the movie and on its subject. Cacciotti said that he became interested in bringing Gibson’s play to the screen because he realized that the drama was “an amazing story to be told.” He was also intrigued by how the piece captured a wide crossover audience. He observed that while audience members may not have known what to expect when they came to the play, they invariably left moved by the drama. Harper added that she was happy to bring one of her own heroes to life.
In its eighth year, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival brought to the city a wide variety of movies that celebrate Jewish life, culture and history. This year the festival presented almost 40 films over a 12-day period, with films spanning a broad range of styles, from comedy to history to drama. Anyone with an interest in films examining faith could find something appealing in the movies offered by the festival.
For those interested in history, “Golda’s Balcony” is not just a biography of Meir—it is also the story of the founding of her beloved nation, Israel. The framework of the film comes from the events of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The film opens as the Prime Minister learns that Egypt and Syria are preparing to attack Israel. The action follows Meir as she deals with the challenges of the war and the threat that her nation will be annihilated. As the action proceeds, Meir addresses the camera directly, explaining her actions and reminiscing about how her life has brought her to this pivotal point.
Along the way, viewers learn about her childhood in Russia under the threat of pogroms and her adolescence after the family immigrated to Milwaukee. She describes how she met and married Morris Meyerson and convinced him to immigrate to Palestine to join a kibbutz and work to create a Zionist state.
Part biography and part history lesson, “Golda’s Balcony” shows the development of a headstrong girl into a politically aware, independent young woman, and reveals how Meir became the dynamic, decisive leader of a nation. Also depicted is the effort that went into the formation of the state of Israel; the struggles of the early Zionist settlers, the unimaginable tragedy of the Holocaust, and the precarious foothold established by the fledgling nation are all discussed in the film. At one point in the film, Meir mentions her disagreement with contemporary papal attitudes toward the Jewish people. In 1973 she met with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, during a time prior to the work Pope John Paul II did in building bridges between the Catholic Church and those of the Jewish faith.
Harper does a remarkable job bringing Golda Meir to life. Harper endured three hours in makeup every day to physically transform herself, and her natural voice and mannerisms are almost unrecognizable. Harper also plays several other characters, from Meir’s husband and daughter to political leaders such as Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion and Henry Kissinger. Each of these characters is still recognizably Meir, but, again, Harper transforms her voice and adds small elements of costuming to signal the difference. This conceit works because all of the characters appear filtered through Meir’s memories.
Director Kagan chose to film Harper and the minimalistic sets (often just a desk or a chair) in front of a green screen. He then filled in the background with paintings or, more often, historical photos and footage of the events being discussed to create a “hybrid picture—somewhere between a movie and a play.” The impressionistic (or, as Kagan describes it, “imagistic”) result is at first disarming but becomes quite effective as it adds to the impression that Kagan described as “historical ethereal memory.”
One of the most notable impressions that comes through in “Golda’s Balcony” is how totally committed Meir was to the cause of Zionism. Even to the detriment of her relationship with her husband and children, she dedicated her life to the creation of the state of Israel. She was not just interested in the political formation of a nation—she was passionate about creating a home and a refuge for the Jewish people. The film does not paint Meir as a saint; instead, it shows her as a real woman who made mistakes, but was absolutely certain that her cause was a just and important one.
Other notable films screened at the festival included “I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal” and “Being Jewish in France,” which also had its North American premiere in Atlanta. More information about the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is available at www.ajff.org.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.