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Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story

yoni netanyahuAround midnight on July 4, 1976, in Uganda's Entebbe Airport, a 30-year-old Israeli named Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu was heading a mission to rescue more than 100 hostages and kill their guerrilla captors. He didn't survive to tell the tale, but his friends, significant others and writings did, and they speak for him in Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.

The documentary by Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot ouijas his charismatic, driven spirit in a portrait that both haunts and uplifts. Yoni's own poetry, prose and letters are used to narrate the film, which also weaves home movies and news coverage of the Entebbe raid anchored by CBS legend Walter Cronkite.

Rounding out the testimony are interviews with Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and other prominent figures in the young hero's life.

Perhaps you've heard of his younger brother, Benjamin. Israel's current prime minister movingly recounts what it was like to break news of Yoni's death to their parents. Their father, scholar Benzion Netanyahu, had brought the family to the U.S. for an academic position when Yoni was in high school. Later Yoni too would answer the siren's call of academe when Harvard dangled a scholarship, and soon after when he transferred to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The combination of lyrical gift, intellectual curiosity and hyperresponsibility yielded a poet-warrior who toggled between studies and soldiering, the United States and Israel, romantic yearnings and martyric crusades. He served as commander of the special forces unit Sayeret Matkal and fought in Israel's 1967 and 1973 wars.

As the title suggests, Follow Me's hard-burning subject had leadership in his DNA. From what unfurls onscreen, it's hard not to conclude that this immensely talented young man would have risen to a postion of prominence in whatever field he chose. Yet it's equally suggestive that his demons would have followed him there.

In an especially stirring excerpt from one of his letters, the much mythologized combattant ponders thedirectors of follow me inglories of war: ''To kill at such very close range ... to the point of pressing the muzzle against the flesh and pulling the trigger for a single bullet to be released and kill accurately ... adds a whole dimension of 

sadness to a man's being. Not a momentary, transient sadness, but something that sinks in and is forgotten, yet is there and endures.''

When asked about Yoni's ambivalence, the filmmakers stressed his complex character.

"He was constantly thinking about different political positions, point-counterpoint, and then debating them and constantly struggling with all of these different points," said Pinchot. "He hates war, but he becomes an assassin. This makes him not just a fascinating character but a real human being -- someone who makes choices and wrestles with them at the same time."

Pinchot and Gruber shared their own experiences in wrestling with how to tell Yoni's story, a creative process that Pinchot began 16 years prior to the film's completion.

Q: The film is called Follow Me, yet Yoni's love of Israel, sense of duty and standards of performance were probitively high for most people to join with him. Talk about your choice of title and whether Yoni was aware of that paradox.

JG: Yoni had really high standards and he did expect people to work as hard as they possibly could. You see from his first days in the army there was a story about him carrying a stretcher that was for two people and he was yelling at his troop -- and one of them says, "We admire him, but he wasn't very popular." But he was commander of the most elite unit of the Israel Defence Forces, so if you're not going to demand exceptionalism from the people under you, then why would you be commander?

With other Sayeret Matkal commanders as well there was extreme rigor in what they asked for. Yoni was actually unlike some other commanders who were very much on top of the people they commanded. He put a lot of faith in his soldiers. He said, "I know you can do it." As Omer Bar-Lev said at the end of film, "He had more faith in us than we had in ourselves." That speaks to someone who can let go and step off when needed.

ADP: We didn't think that people would be able to follow every bit of his life since he really was an exceptional person. The idea wasn't, Can I follow him in terms of being this remarkable scholar or great athlete, or can I be as good looking as Yoni Netanyahu? He had all of these great characteristics, yet he still maintained a devotion to great sacrifice to a higher calling, something bigger than himself. If you see that as an example, then the "Follow Me" is pretty clear. 

Q: Yoni was constantly challenging himself and others, but according to an intimate friend of his, he also had a tendency to panic. Were you aware of this, and if so, what prompted you to omit it from the film?

ADP: We never heard that. The fact that he was given command of the riskiest mission says something. I don't think they would have given it to someone who had a tendancy to panic. From our research and conversations, we got the opposite. He actually had a tendency in great stress and danger to be quite calm and soothing to his men and to himself. 

Q: To what extent did Yoni's status as a sacred martyr discourage you from digging into his shadows?

ADP: In the past he really has been a myth and an icon and less a human being. It's understandable. But we were trying to push the envelope beyond the one or two dimensions that people have known about Yoni before. Yoni didn't have a perfect relationship with everybody. He was a tough commander. He was a husband who had a very complicated relationship with his wife. If you can still make tough choices knowing that there are downsides and ramifications, that makes it even more heroic -- real heroism, not Hollywood's version.

Q: What impact did Yoni's father have on his decisions and worldview? How did Yoni feel about Professor Netanyahu's Revisionist Zionist politics, which were a big factor in his leaving then Labor-dominated Israel in search of an academic career in the US?

JG: We didn't want it to be a political film, too closely associated to the politics of the country. Benzion was 101 when we interviewed him, so we didn't get as much as we would've liked in terms of the relationship between the two of them. But to share a few observations, the father's patriotism on a deep emotional level was passed along to the son. Another fascinating characteristic that translated to Yoni was the father's ability of concentration and hard work. His father's book on the Marrano Jews was a humongous undertaking, and he was able with three rambunctious boys to focus on his work at an incredible level and for a long time. 

Q: Professor Netanyahu clearly had divided academic, ideological and familial commitments. Did Yoni, as the eldest brother, assume the brunt of this?

JG: He was constantly trying to find his own road, which really was one of the reasons we were so drawn to him. Clearly there was a tremendous amount of respect to his parents and their intellectual prowess and the values they gave. Yet Yoni left his family to go back to Israel. He constantly battled with balancing everything in his life.

Q: He was at war within and without. Now for a filmic question: what informed the story's nonlinear structure?

JG: Ari's vision for the film -- he was working on it for close to 16 years -- were these two parallel stories of Yoni's life and the Entebbe operation building towards each other. It gives a sense of destiny, that his life has always been going towards this. When I came on board (I agreed that) it was very powerful for the viewer to be in the Entebbe story and leave it at the right moment so you sense that the tension is building on each day of the week. And with Yoni there are real chapters of his life, which felt like good places to leave off, especially with the poetry of his own words, when he's struggling at high school or after his marriage ends. 

Q: How did you use audio and visual elements to underscore the timeshifting?

JG: Visually we tried to different the Entebbe story. It's a little more letter box than the Yoni story. It begins in black and white. The music is very different. When we come back to Yoni's story, it's full-screen; it's color. You hear the voice of Yoni and you know you're back in his story.

Q: How did you get the audio recording of the Entebbe operation?

JP: The Entebbe operation audio had been released just a couple of years prior. It adds an authenticity that hasn't existed before. Likewise we got recently released documents for the week of planning. In the film there's a black and white schematic of the airport and an airplane that flies in, that's the actual planning document.

Q: How would the film have been different had it come out as you originally intended, 16 years ago?

ADP: One of the great things that happened in waiting these 16 years is that the people we did interview were much more comfortable talking about Yoni as a human being than they would have been had I talked to them 16 years before. For instance, the unit's comfort in talking about the conflicts they had with Yoni was something that they probably would not have talked about earlier. We know that [his wife] Tuti would not have talked about her story. It was the first time she ever spoke on film. Even now she was very hesitant. We felt like we should talk about the miscarraiges and the divorce. We found Yoni to be much more relatable that way. 

Q: Why did it take 16 years to make the film?

ADP: We were kind of threading a very small needle. We wanted the film to be funded; we wanted it to be a nonprofit and we wanted it to be funded by people who were not associated with the family or Israel. Finding that person wasn't easy. We wanted it to be a story about a person, not a cause.

Q: Who took the plunge?

A: The funder who ended up funding it was a New York Wall Street person, Mark Manson, whom I was financing feature films with. We were at a restaurant and he asked me what projects I was thinking about. I told him about this one, never thinking he would have any interest in it. He fell in love with it and ended up greenlighting it at the lunch. He saw it as a love story -- a love triangle among a man and the people in his life that he loved and his country.

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