The most poignant and polished film in this year’s first ever Kolnoa category, a collection of films about the Jewish/Israeli experience, is Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, which recalls the tragically shortened life of Jonathan Netanyahu, the brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin.
Netanyahu was a charismatic soldier who kept putting off the higher education which he began at Harvard to re-enlist in the army. Serving as the commander of an elite combat unit akin to our special forces and colloquially referred to as “The Unit,” he died in 1976 while leading a risky but successful mission to rescue Israeli hostages from a hijacked plane at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
Netanyahu left behind a record of his intellectual precocity in the letters he wrote to friends and family which, read aloud, narrate much of the film. Netanyahu dotes on the physical geography of Israel’s landscape, finding in it a sense of place from which he feels displaced when his father, a famous scholar, moves the family to Philadelphia to complete a book project. Although Netanyahu’s letters sometimes ring with the exuberant, unexamined patriotism of youth, Netanyahu offers a cogent argument for Israel as a homeland worth fighting for.
The co-writers and directors, Ari Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber, answered some of my questions via email.
Much of the film is based on Yoni’s correspondence. Are the letters compiled somewhere or did you hunt them down?
After Yoni died, people throughout every part of his life spontaneously brought the letters they had received from him to his family during the Shiva (the Jewish mourning period), and the Netanyahus decided to publish the collection of letters in a book to preserve his character and memory. The book is called Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu.
To what extent did Yoni’s letters write your script for you?
The hardest part was deciding which letters to include as each time we opened the book we fell in love with another letter, another phrase, another insight. But it gave us a wealth of perspective into Yoni’s character, and allowed us to bring him to life.Follow Me is a rare opportunity in which a deceased hero tells their own story, and it allows the audience to feel like they have spent precious time with Yoni himself.
I found Yoni’s writing to be extremely precocious. He had a voice at such a young age.
The book was a tremendous resource for shaping the film and is the main reason we were drawn to the story in the first place. It is truly rare to have someone at the level of Yoni’s military accomplishments share his inner thoughts, conflicts, concerns and dreams with such introspection and honesty. This is what makes him a 21st century hero for every country and every person.
Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story screens on Friday, January 27, 1 p.m. at the S.B. Museum of Art and again on Thursday, February 2, 1:40 p.m., at the Metro 4.