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BERLINALE 2022 Berlinale Special

Review: 1341 Frames of Love and War


- BERLINALE 2022: Director Ran Tal takes a look back at war photographer Micha Bar-Am’s life in an engaging photo montage

Review: 1341 Frames of Love and War

“Sometimes the most horrible things are aesthetic.” Micha Bar-Am would know. The German-born Israeli war photographer was there whenever conflict erupted in the Jewish state. He was also there during its development from a return point for the Diaspora to a mighty player in the Middle Eastern region. Israeli director Ran Tal has tried to grasp the persona of the photographer in his newest documentary 1341 Frames of Love and War [+see also:
film profile
, which premiered in the Berlinale Special section on 13 February.

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Born in Berlin in 1930 as Michael Aguli, Bar-Am's family fled to Palestine in 1936 to escape the rising persecution by the Nazis. Memories are a tricky thing, as the film repeatedly points out. “I have no painful memories of my childhood in Germany,” Bar-Am remembers, just as the film shows a picture of him and his siblings in front of a swastika decorated monument. Growing up in a kibbutz in his new home, he soon longed for a new Hebrew name, changing Aguli to Bar-Am – “son of the nation”.

This “son of the nation” created one of the most well-known und uncompromised visual documentations of the history of his country. Tal lets these disturbing, often wrenching but ever artistic pictures speak for themselves. Except for the childhood sequence, which showcases bureaucratic documents as well as childhood videos and photos of Bar-Am, the movie is solemnly composed of Bar-Am’s archives.

Trenches, corpses, burned-out vehicles and buildings, marching soldiers as well as people crying out in despair stare back from the contact sheets. The proud poses of the IDF soldiers with corpses of the PLO fighters leave a bitter aftertaste. Sound effects score the picture montage for minimal disruption but maximum effect, whether it is music, an engine starting, a match being lit, or a gun being fired.

There is a hollow beauty, an artistic excellency even in the most daunting frames – an exhilarating high Bar-Am experienced whenever he went out there. “Some are attracted to war like moths to a flame,” he explains. But there is a softer edge to this man of many wars that Tal can lure out. The whole film is, in the end, a family affair. Sharing the voiceover of the photomontage is his wife Orna. His sons Barak and Nimrod eventually chip in too.

This makes for some of the more light-hearted moments of the film. A dispute between Bar-Am and his wife over the chronology of how he joined the IDF at their border crossing in Lebanon in 1972 turns into a humorous repeat loop. Tal shows the exact same picture reel more than once, but each time the narrated details and chronology vary a little.

The dichotomy of memory versus archive is a well-established historic notion that Bar-Am leads ad-absurdum. His memories are his pictures, the photographer insists. They are a pillar of his experiences and seemingly a box in which to store them away. And yet, “not everything is worth remembering.” Going through too many defining experiences and combats, such as the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Jom Kippur War in 1973, or the occupation of Beirut in 1982, left a mark, after all.

Tal is not only interested in Bar-Am’s warzone experience, however, just as he was not interested only in hearing his perspective in the voiceover. Starting with early kibbutz photography, Bar-Am never just documented brutality. There was also endearment and love in his work. The contact sheets are a motley assembly of war impressions, as well as daily and home life impressions. They are, as his son points out, the closest thing to a family photo album.

The one regret one can sense in all that Bar-Am’s impressive life has to offer, is his failed mission. He saw his work as a way of combating conflict and war. Now he knows this is never going to happen. He has no answers to these problems, he admits. But then again, these are “questions that have no answers.”

1341 Frames Love and War is produced by Grapevine Shoot Productions. It is internationally distributed by Reservoir Docs.

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