A scene from "Image of Victory."
A scene from "Image of Victory."

East Bay Jewish film fest: An Egyptian journalist, a young mother and a defeat in early Israel

Israel decisively won its War of Independence. But it didn’t win every battle.

One painful defeat took place at Nitzanim, a kibbutz on Israel’s southern coastal plain that was destroyed by the Egyptian army in July 1948. Scores of Israelis died or were taken prisoner. That bloody loss, and the events leading up to it, have been captured in sweeping cinematic style by director Avi Nesher in his 2021 film “Image of Victory.”

Recounting the tragedy from both Arab and Israeli perspectives, Nesher has crafted a sprawling war film akin to the best of that genre. “Image of Victory” will screen virtually from March 19 to 25 during this year’s East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, which starts March 12.

Narrated by the character of Mohamed Hassanein (Amir Khoury), a real-life Egyptian newsreel director who was tasked with documenting Egypt’s march of annihilation into the nascent Jewish state, the 128-minute drama tells two parallel stories: that of Hassanein, who embeds with a ragtag band of Arab snipers and then the Egyptian army, and of Mira (Joy Rieger), a fierce Zionist, young mother and free spirit who never backs down from a fight, including those she can’t win.

Mira and her comrades eke out a hardscrabble existence on their dusty, isolated farm. Spanish-speaking Jews from Argentina work side by side with chalutzim (pioneers) and Holocaust survivors, concentration camp tattoos still fresh on their arms. Mira, ever the alpha female, inspires jealousy from other women and exasperation from Avraham (Yadin Gellman), the handsome, smitten Palmach officer assigned to protect the kibbutz.

Hassanein, meanwhile, stubbornly remains true to journalistic truth telling, even when his camera early on films Arab guerrillas falling to the determined Jews of Nitzanim. He angers his Cairo bosses intent on making the Egyptian army, and the pompous King Farouk who rules them, look glorious in newsreels. The pressure on him echoes publisher William Randolph Hearst’s instruction to a reporter in the run-up to the Spanish-American War: “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.”

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Routine skirmishes between kibbutzniks and their Arab neighbors give way to an existential threat from an invading line of Egyptian tanks. Suddenly, it’s war.

Women and children evacuate under cover of darkness, though Mira stays behind with the soldiers. Essentially abandoned by the thinly stretched Israeli military, they man the trenches though doom seems ensured. When the end comes, Hassanein can only admire the courage and grace of Mira, whose wan Mona Lisa smile in the face of death haunts him for the rest of his days.

The battle sequences are taut, tense and brutally realistic. And though it’s easy to root for Mira and the brave kibbutzniks, Nesher presents the Arab narrative with empathy. By stressing a common humanity, hard as it may be for champions of either the Israeli narrative or the Palestinian one, Nesher’s representation of the conflict has no villains.

The film has its flaws. The use of raucous, big-band jazz music to underscore one battle scene proves jarring. And the inexplicably surrealistic final scene — in which the director breaks the fourth wall and pulls a senseless visual stunt — is so out of place, it almost upends the film.

But superb performances, especially from the luminous Rieger, as well as the story’s ratcheting tension and Nesher’s vast cinematic canvas, make “Image of Victory” one of the finest films to come out of Israel in recent years.

“Image of Victory”

Streaming March 19 to 25. Introduced by Matan Zamir, deputy consul general of the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest. In Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and German with English subtitles. Not rated, 128 minutes.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.