A rare look at nature in Israel.
By Ariel Hirschfeld

Everything possible was done to ensure that “Land of Genesis” – the most important and fascinating Israeli nature film ever made – would turn out to be perfectly ordinary and banal. Yet the film, directed and photographed by Moshe Alpert, is far from that. For years, Alpert filmed indigenous creatures, focusing on a pair of swamp cats, a couple of wolves and, on the cliffs of the Dead Sea, a herd of ibexes – and he reveals cycles of life more intimately and more accurately than anything seen here before.

Alpert’s film displays a rare eye and awareness in terms of our local landscape. Surpassing interest, expertise and an overriding concern for life in the wild (an uncommon approach in itself ), it reflects a profound acceptance of nature’s laws and cycles. This willingness to accept transcends the conventional human interpretation, which relates to animals in terms of the symbols of good and bad that pervade the Bible and mythology.
wolves – Land of Genesis – Sept 24 2010

A pair of wolves. Grave and sublime spectacle.
Photo by: “Land of Genesis”

In Alpert’s vision, predatory acts and struggles in nature are not cruel – or evil. His eye uncovers the relentless movement toward survival, the migratory regularity of birds, the instinct to reproduce – without painting animals in the colors of human romanticism. The way he shows us a vulture targeting the carcass of an ibex, by zooming in first on the bird’s huge talons on the stones, is a completely new point of view. It deconstructs the symbols of dominion, arrogance and evil.

The vultures pecking at a carcass in this film are not a metaphor for human greed or for “bestiality.” Alpert is totally thrilled by the animals, but does not sell them cheap or offer routine interpretations of them. The vultures are present here, like the ibexes and the wildcats, as the embodiment of absolute “differentness.” Alpert achieves his effects by quick shifts of viewpoint and by following continuing processes, attentively and at great length. By these two means he is able to eliminate much of the usual sort of talk about nature, whether here or elsewhere.

The scenes of the wolf giving birth are among the most serious efforts undertaken locally in connection with indigenous wildlife. These images also shatter another element of the standard approach to nature – namely, the sentimental attitude toward animal motherhood. The wolf, quaking with the effort of giving birth, eating the placenta, burdened by the prodigious strength required for the effort, is a grave and sublime spectacle, and not pleasant or cute in the least. The same is true with the gobbling up of snails that emerge from their shells in the desert, the way the swamp cats dispose of a viper, or the trapping of a praying mantis by a patient chameleon which slowly discovers the secrets of the insect’s camouflage.

Alpert observes our natural habitat in a very non-Israeli way, largely because he sees it in proportion and because he does not wrap it in hackneyed sayings. At certain moments the photography is quite literally breathtaking. The fog that descends from the cliffs of the crater, the sun peeping through the tops of papyrus dripping with water, the underwater shot of the swimming swamp cat or the cat’s thrust toward fish – all capture the viewpoint of an extraordinary person. A unique one, actually.

Perhaps it was fear of the unusual, or of the innocence that envelops nature-lovers when they enter the media world, or perhaps fear of the market – whatever the cause, the entire musical and narrative “wrapping” of this film was executed on the basis of a completely different orientation: ordinary, boring, prettified, showing a petty vision and a narrow horizon. Thankfully, the editing does not share in this banalization. It takes a strictly orthodox form, following the round of seasons from fall to fall – that is, from, one rutting season to the next – and placing a special emphasis on the contrasts between death and life, and on the rapid, restless movement between them. But from the moment words enter this weave, something predictable penetrates the fabric of the film: tepid stories of animal couples with contemporary Hebrew children’s names. Something, in short, that smacks of Walt Disney nature films.

The sight of a black widow spider stalking a yellow scorpion inspires the screenwriter to pay the compliment that she is a consummate professional. It never entered his mind that the engineer has not yet been born who can figure out a way to lift a cargo like this, with its relatively heavy weight, with such ease and economy of energy. The sight of Efraim Sidon’s name among the screenwriters shook me. He must have dozed off. Similarly, Yaron London, who is in charge of the voice-over, doesn’t have his heart in the narration. London, undoubtedly the Chaliapin of Hebrew speakers, doesn’t know what to do with his voice when he encounters the saccharine words that describe swamp cat cubs. His voice reveals not only disgust at the words, but also a total lack of interest in the wondrous phenomena of nature.

But the most ruinous element here, the ugliness that threatens to bring down the film altogether, is the music (by Uri Ophir ). Immediately at the opening, as accompaniment to an aerial sequence showing the cliffs of a crater in the Negev, the orchestra swells into a Hollywood-style crescendo like those that typically accompany shots of the Grand Canyon or the peaks of the Andes (and thus, of course, in the style of Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” ). From here on in, there isn’t a Hollywood cliche that’s not used: The animals are anthropomorphized, frightening sounds herald the arrival of predators, there is childish music for the cute cubs and so on. It’s all bland, bloated and totally synthetic.

The music was apparently created from a concern over boredom, as though it’s necessary to come to the aid of nature and arouse the viewers. Yet here nature is sublimity itself, a thousand times more stirring and diverse than the soundtrack. And as though something were still missing from the realm of bad taste, there are a few songs by Achinoam Nini, which, against the backdrop of the flora and fauna, sound even more hollow and ingratiating than usual.

I would not mention this were it not for the fact that the film merits a text by someone who is capable of coping with this rare viewpoint. There is such a person: If Agi Mishol, that wise poet of nature, had written the words for this film, it would have benefited from riveting insights in which the human voice becomes an essential element in a new viewpoint. And how much more interesting it would be to view the film with less raucous music – of the kind that has already freed itself from the usual nature-film soundtracks, is ready to be silent for a moment and can perhaps also evoke the film’s quintessential locality. Yair Delal or Michael Wolfe would have done wonders with it. Because this is an Israeli film in the simplest and most substantial meaning of the word. It’s about our land and our animals. And, for a change, it actually sees Israel. Sees it in the most powerful way.