Watching the award-winning Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, I felt the same as when I saw my first Anne Frank production after getting extremely invested in her story as a pre-teen. You become so connected to the drama, and so impressionable to the youthful experiences they encounter. You actually want to be them for awhile, despite the ongoing adversity they are dealt.
In late high school and early university, I read and re-read “The Letters of Yoni Netanyahu”, gripped by an interest I still can’t quite pin down. (Well, he was gorgeous and intelligent. That might’ve been part of it.) I remember never having a bookmark for it and so every time I picked it up I’d land somewhere else, and go back and forth all the time, so it seemed to me like the family was constantly travelling between the States and Israel. I had learned about the operation at Entebbe, and about the spate of terrorism in the Middle East of the 70s, but the book and now the film create a personal connection, and succeed at celebrating heroism while simultaneously decrying the futility of war. Once, I read the first half of the book by only focusing on the letters addressed to his middle brother, Bibi, as though it would shed some light on the then-Prime Minister, now the now-Prime Minister. (As to whether losing his brother had or has any bearing on Bibi’s political agenda, Israelis are still mystified).
But Bibi does open up here, as does the youngest of the three boys, Ido, along with their father and the two loves of Yoni’s life, whose interviews work a magic that I had forgotten I enjoyed in the book. Follow Me presents real relationships, discussed by two women who are still so true to Yoni despite living the majority of their lives without him. The film is chronological, with the Entebbe saga layered as breaking news over the romantic tale of Yoni’s youth. History buffs will enjoy the significant cameos from Bibi, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and scores of Yoni’s broken-hearted comrades and peers.
The artistic bent of the film is a little bit soaked in Americana – a natural outcome from co-directors Jonathan Gruber (Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray, TJFF 2011) and Ari Daniel Pinchot (producer of Paper Clips) – but this is fitting for the Netanyahus. Yoni yearned for an Ivy-league education, to immerse himself in academia and broaden his mind. He was equally passionate about being a physical asset for Israel, after the hubris of the late 60′s and the imminent existential threats that were building once again. He is painted as superhuman, but to a point. No one covers up his insecurities. In this way he is an accessible symbol of youth; how many young people struggle to balance the need to study, train and advance their skills, and the need to be a part of something bigger than themselves? Ultimately, the documentary builds to a place of finite clarity. Yoni remains an enigma, because he can never be interviewed. All we have is beautifully-illuminated insight into his soul through his letters.
Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story, (USA), 83 mins. The Canadian premiere screens on May 6 at 5.30 p.m. at the Sheppard Grand, and May 10, 6.00 p.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. For more info about the film go to followmethemovie.com. For the full TJFF schedule go to tjff.com.