by Suzanne Pollak
Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu did few things lightly.
The life of the Israeli soldier most known for leading the boldly successful 1976 raid on the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, shines through in the new documentary Follow Me.
But in this 87-minute movie, he becomes more real, allowing his own letters as well as interviews with family, friends and fellow soldiers to show how he often thought of leaving the Israel Defense Force and wished he could spend more time with his first wife and family members.
The movie has its world premiere May 4 at The Avalon Theatre in the District and will be shown there at least through May 10.
Written, directed and produced by two Silver Spring men, the documentary has already received awards at several film festivals.
Follow Me, which is the IDF policy of officers first when going into battle, really is two stories. For part of the movie, Israel's war history and the eight-day hostage ordeal in Entebbe are shown using news reports from Walter Cronkite and actual fighting footage. Shown in this part is how Netanyahu led his country's heroic rescue mission of the passengers aboard an Air France plane that had been hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells. Netanyahu lost his life in that mission. He was 30 years old.
Much of this part of the documentary is shown in black and white.
Those dramatic scenes are interwoven with the life story of Lt. Col. Netanyahu. Letters to his girlfriend, Tuti, are read as the couple moves from being friends, husband and wife and then separation and divorce. His letters to his parents and two younger brothers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iddo, are surprisingly beautifully written - explained in the movie by the fact that he often spent nights reading poetry.
There are also close-up interviews with his fellow soldiers, ex-wife and the woman he loved at the end of his life. Several noted Israeli politicians speak admiringly of Netanyahu, the man, including Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres.
But the most powerful interview, by far, is with his younger brother, Bibi, especially concerning the night his brother died.
These sections, shown in color, depict Yoni Netanyahu as an incredibly ambitious man of great intellect, with a selfless devotion and total love of his country.
But Netanyahu also comes through as a young man, enjoying time with his younger brothers, liking the opposite sex and sometimes happy, sometimes uncomfortable to be among fellow soldiers.
Ari Daniel Pinchot received the rights to make the movie 16 years ago and while he admitted to frustration at the length of time it took him to get Netanyahu's story to the big screen, he now is glad it worked out this way. He doesn't believe so many of Netanyahu's fellow soldiers, friends and, in particular his ex-wife, would have agreed to be in the movie back then.
Working on the film 35 years after Netanyahu's death "allowed people to become a lot more forthcoming," he said.
However, he added, "His mother would have been a great interview. That is my one regret." Netanyahu's mother, Cela, died at the age of 87 in 2000. His father, Benzion, died this week at 102 years old.
Pinchot, who lives with his wife and four children in Silver Spring, grew up in the area and graduated from what is now-called Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in 1989. He sends his children there as well.
Pinchot was associate producer of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and producer of Paper Clips and Ides of March.
For Follow Me, Pinchot is credited with being the director and producer. He worked with Jonathan Gruber, a writer, producer and director.
Gruber, executive producer of Black Eye Productions where he directs, produces and writes documentaries, TV shows, commercials and other videos, also lives in Silver Spring. His two children attend the Jewish Primary Day School in DC. His shul, Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, has planned an outing May 6 to view the film.
In order for the film to be successful, the two men needed to gain the trust of a lot of people, most who still hold a special place in their heart for the war hero. So before filming, they spent time with people in the Israeli government and well as Netanyahu's family and friends, and told them exactly what they wanted the movie to be about. They basically conducted the interviews that later would make it into the screen, but first without any cameras.
They gained the support of the family, "which obviously helped a lot," Pinchot said. "The family understood where we were coming from."
It was important for those in the movie that Netanyahu be depicted as "a real human being rather than an icon," Pinchot said. The people needed to see "we understood that people can be flawed and heroic."
Gruber said he believed they were successful, noting the movie treats viewers "with intelligence. It is not just a puff piece."
Added Pinchot, "We tried very hard to make this film accessible to a wider audience." He believes anyone who has ever been "conflicted by his own life, his dreams, his country" will relate to the film. "We are hoping that young people, especially, see it."
Gruber agreed, noting, "There is a Yoni in every country."