An ambitious attempt to cover the 100-year-plus history of Israeli kibbutzim, agrarian communes founded with the ideals of Zionism and socialism in the early 20th century, Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment is a rich blend of historical footage and modern-day interviews featuring all three generations of kibbutzniks, albeit one that, in stretching all that history over an information-packed 89 minutes, spreads itself too thin. While the interviews penetrate into the surprisingly different experiences of kibbutz members, the robotic, anonymous female narration gives segments a larger historical context. This approach is mostly successful, but it’s in the details that an opposite problem emerges: The documentary over-identifies the interviewees, repeating their names every time they reappear on screen, yet it under-identifies key historical figures that played an important historical role in the Jewish state. When someone mentions A.D. Gordon and the film cuts to a photograph of the bearded Zionist who “created a religion out of labor” in order to correct the corrupted mind of Diaspora Jews, no title card is provided for his name; likewise, there’s no text or photos to identify Menachem Begin, a prime minister of Israel who marked a major turning point in kibbutzim’s economic downside, which resulted in its eventual turn toward privatization.
While very informative, Inventing Our Life doesn’t work as an introduction to kibbutzim because it requires the viewer to have some prior knowledge of the history of Israel. Too glib with its historical referencing and too broad to serve as an in-depth look at anything specific about the kibbutz lifestyle, the film may be most valuable for what director Toby Perl Freilich was able to capture regarding the changing values seen through generations of kibbutz members, with younger ones expressing, in opposition to their grandparents and parents’ collectivism, more individualistic and capitalistic tendencies. While the question of whether the kibbutz should continue on, and how, is central to the film, the way it’s introduced into the first five minutes of the film feels sudden and muddled, inexplicably coming shortly after the narration and a first-generation female member explain how kibbutzim was formed, then dropping out as the film moves chronologically toward the modern day.
Most indicative of the film’s limitations is its cursory segment on a kibbutz in Sasa. Prior to its formation as the first kibbutz by American-born Jews, the Israeli village had been recently inhabited by Arabs, a fact that cries for more examination of the topic in general than one interviewee mentioning there were some qualms about occupying the village. Later, when it’s mentioned that only those kibbutzim that are lucky enough to have thriving industries—mostly, ironically, those manufacturing plastic products—have the luxury to stay communally intact, the film fails to mention that Sasa stayed afloat by profiting off of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by selling armored plating to the American military. These are no small omissions for a film that’s otherwise full of interesting facts on a subject that was never greater than a small percentage of the total Israeli population, but had an oversized influence on its identity, at times providing an unproportionate contribution to Israel’s agriculture, army, and economy.