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Jewish Arts Festival: Photo archive holds a piece of Israel’s history

Courtesy photo Miriam Weissenstein (left) looks at a photo of herself as a young woman, taken by her late husband Rudi, held by her grandson Ben Peter. It's a scene from the documentary "Life in Stills," which will have its Utah premiere at the Jewish Arts Festival, Nov. 9-11.

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Nov 06 2013 06:08PM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:37PM

A priceless chronicle of the history of Israel lies in a bunch of negatives in dusty boxes in a Tel Aviv photo shop.

Filmmaker Tamar Tal uncovers that history in her documentary, "Life in Stills." The film also profiles the shop’s 96-year-old proprietor Miriam Weissenstein and her grandson Ben Peter, who must find a new home for the family’s long-standing shop — and figure out what to do with years of photos taken by Miriam and her late husband, Rudi, of the major and minor moments in the formation of the Israeli nation.

The Utah premiere of "Life in Stills" is the opening event of this year’s Jewish Arts Festival, which starts Saturday at the I.J. and Jeanné Wagner Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City.

Tal answered questions, via email, about her film and the experience of meeting the Weissensteins.

How did you first encounter the Weissensteins’ photo store? What was it that made you say, "This would make a good movie"?

I met Miriam when I came into the shop as a photography student who wished to learn more about the documentation of Tel Aviv. I fell in love with her since the first moment, and we quickly became good friends although the age gap of 65 years.

Her life story captured me and it was clear to me that her story had to be told. This was long before Ben joined the shop. I made a short film about her and the shop, and years later when Ben started to get involved I realized, "I didn’t finish anything, I am only starting."

How did you establish a rapport with Miriam and Ben, to get them to allow you inside to film their lives?

With Ben it was really easy, he trusted me because he saw the short film. With Miriam it took few years to really gain her trust, but I spent so much time with them in the shop that they got used to having me there, and sometimes forgot about the camera’s presence, and those were the scenes I put inside the film.

For those of us outside Israel, can you explain how big a historical treasure trove the Weissensteins’ photo archives are?

It’s over a million negatives that Rudi documented the establishment of a state, places, people, organization, daily life, immigrants. You can really dive into the past and understand history in another point of view while looking through this archive.

What do you hope results from having the Weissensteins’ story being seen worldwide?

For me, it’s a story about love, passion for photography and memory. Miriam inspired me with her passion for life, always looking forward the next day, new projects, never looking back. Ben inspired me with his big heart and patience.

What’s happened since the end of the movie?

Ben is still running the shop in the temporary location because the building is [not] yet built. His biggest project now is to find support to save the archive. I am sure he will succeed, because it is a national treasure.

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