Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer, died five months ago, before the release of Yonathan and Masha Zur’s biopic, Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams, which will be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 9.
Their vivid and wide-ranging documentary, supplemented by file footage, presents Oz in various modes. He’s a keen and perceptive student of Zionism. He’s a passionate and engaged Israeli patriot supportive of a two-state solution to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. He’s an observer of the racist societies that either drove Jews out of Europe or murdered them.
The opening scene, set in the desert town of Arad, finds Oz writing as the phone rings. The call is from a journalist who will interview him. As he talks, he rests his feet on his desk. Upon finishing, he rubs his face in exhaustion, saying he doesn’t really enjoy interviews.
The scene shifts to New York City, where he delivers a lecture at Columbia University. Israel is a dream come true, he says. But the fulfillment of dreams often results in disappointment, he adds. At a reception at the Israeli consulate, he runs into Israel’s president, Shimon Peres. The then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has just lambasted Israel from the floor of the United Nations. Oz offers Peres an idea for a rebuttal: praise the people of Iran and Iranian culture. Peres follows his advice.
On a visit to Vienna, Oz acknowledges that his ambivalence about Europe was passed on to him by his late parents, citizens of Lithuania and Poland who were lucky to be “kicked out” of Europe before the Holocaust devoured their respective communities. European Jews were devoted to Europe, but were repaid by antisemitism and the Holocaust, he says ruefully.
Switching back to the topic of Israel, Oz says it was born out of the conflicting and mutually exclusive dreams of liberals, Marxists and conservatives.
A left-wing Zionist raised in a militant right-wing Zionist family, Oz meets Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian intellectual and the president of Bir Zeit University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Oz is convinced that a two-state solution is feasible, and that East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem will respectively host Israeli and Palestinian embassies one day. As they converse, Oz says Israel should assume some moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee issue.
He speaks about his parents again. His mother committed suicide when he was only 12. His father, a scholar who worked in a library and never landed a teaching position at an Israeli university, was badly affected by her untimely death. As a result, Oz was basically on his own from that point forward. In this connection, he reads passages from his autobiographical novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Arriving in Dusseldorf to receive a literary award, Oz admits his “account” with Germany remains “open.” Addressing a large audience packed into an auditorium, he sings the praises of the German poet Heinrich Heine, whom he describes as the first secular European Jew.
At this point, the Zurs focus on Oz’s youth. When he was 15, he abandoned his surname, Klausner, and went to live on Kibbutz Hulda. It was there that his career as a short story writer and novelist was launched. After his breakthrough novel, My Michael, was published, the kibbutz gave him one day off a week to write.
Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams comes to a close as he issues a warning: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has already led to the questioning of Israel’s right to exist. As a dove, he’s critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, yet his love of Israel burns brightly.