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Micha Bar-Am: A Rendez-vous in the Heart of Israel

Director Ran Tal’s 2022 documentary is a precious encounter with Micha Bar-Am, a photographer who has archived the memory of the Jewish state.

Ran Tal’s documentary, made in 2022, is precious because it traces the life journey of one man, Micha Bar-Am, born in 1930 in Germany, and of the country that became his home, Israel. The 90-minute film, titled 1431 Frames of Love and War, lets unfold the life of the legendary photojournalist, now aged 93, and his wife, Orna, both of whom are extremely accurate in their accounts. Tal looked closely at thousands of Bar-Am’s scanned photographs and contact sheets, often annotated by Orna, and spoke with them in their house in Ramat Gan, once in the countryside, now a suburb of Tel Aviv. 

The archives, which occupy the entire basement and part of the second floor, have been untouched for decades. Orna’s beautiful paintings cover the walls of the dining room and the living room: she learned to paint from the great artist Raffie Lavie (1937–2007), but chose to give up her art to devote herself to her husband and their children. The couple represent a generation that helped build the country; they were never driven by money or success, but rather sought fulfillment in their work. Micha Bar-Am hails from a German Jewish family who emigrated just before the war, in 1937. 

Doubt and sorrow

With fifty hours of conversations and unique images, the Israeli director, known for his remarkable feature film Children of the Sun (2007), sought to articulate his subject: “This was the heart of my project: how to start with still images and create movement, energy, a spark of electricity between still images, Micha’s as well as those of the film. How can I make these images move or how can I freeze moving images? At the same time, I wanted something very distant and very intimate, in order to leave the viewers some space to themselves, to allow them to understand. I have always been concerned about the relationship between the spectators and the screen, that’s the history of cinema…”

The challenge set by this very successful film d’auteur is to show and share, without voyeurism or pathos, the itinerary of a man who has tried to “remain optimistic” despite painful memories: “Sometimes you have to forget and move forward.” From his first photos in the desert in 1953 to the Eichmann trial, from the Six Day War to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, from Marlene Dietrich on stage to portraits of Israeli leaders, Bar-Am has documented sixty years in the existence of the Jewish state

1973 © Micha Bar-Am
1973 © Micha Bar-Am
1973 © Micha Bar-Am
1973 © Micha Bar-Am
© Micha Bar-Am
© Micha Bar-Am

Rather than seek to organize this collective, professional, and personal body of memory, Tal preferred a chronology that relies “on the meeting between Micha and Orna, the progress of their personal and family life paralleled by the history of Israel. The film starts in 1972, then goes back to the Eichmann trial, then back to Germany, to Berlin of Micha’s childhood, then jumps forward to 1967.”

This temporal flexibility lends the film its fluidity, while allowing the viewer to feel closer to Bar-Am, to follow his hopes, his disappointments, the reality of violence during the wars he photographed: 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 … We are also privy to his depression when, in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, he finds refuge in alcohol. Orna, bubbly and cheerful, is Micha’s voice when he is suddenly overcome with sadness and unable to finish his sentence, as if flooded by this past that has also upset his children. Ran Tal skillfully rekindles the conversation, raising probing questions about photojournalism, memory, distance, composition, commitment, objectivity, self-censorship:

Ran Tal : “Which do you think is more accurate, memory or photographs?”
Micha Bar-Am: “The photographs. We adapt memory to photographs.”

1341 Frames of Love and War is a compelling documentary that often feels as if it were being made before our very eyes, as if the director, Micha and Orna were in a live conversation. Although they don’t appear on screen, their presence is palpable. Their voices are unforgettable. We are at their side, as if connected to them through the power of the photographs made by the man who is considered the father of Israeli photojournalism. “When I started out, I hoped I could make the world a better place. It’s a naive belief that photography can be a force for the good. I don’t believe that anymore.” 

Doubt and sorrow: the ability to show the multiple setbacks of a profession constantly confronted with the truth of history is one of the many strong points of this documentary.

© Anne Maniglier
Micha Bar-Am © Anne Maniglier
© Anne Maniglier
Orna Bar-Am © Anne Maniglier
© Anne Maniglier
© Anne Maniglier

Ran Tal, 1341 Frames of Love and War, documentary, 90 min, Israel. Screening Wednesday, April 26, at 7:00 pm, Museum of Jewish Art and History / mahJ, Paris. Original with English subtitles. The screening will be followed by a meeting with Ran Tal, moderated by Ariel Schweitzer.

An installation, The Last Photograph: Ran Tal after Micha Bar-Am, based on Micha Bar-Am’s photographs and curated by Noam Gal, was presented in 2022 at the Tel Aviv Museum and visited by more than 100,000 people.

Ran Tal, Children of the Sun (2007)

1341 Frames of Love and War, Ran Tal

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