By Maxine Dovere / JointMedia News Service ~
NEW YORK, N.Y. — Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu was the 30-year-old commander of the elite Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commando unit Sayeret Matkal, when he was killed in action helping to save 102 Israelis being held hostage in the terminal of Uganda’s Entebbe airport on the night of July 4, 1976.
Netanyahu, the brother of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was admired but not popular; a conflicted man struggling to bring order to the complicated pieces of his life’s puzzle — a life he gave for his country. Filmmakers Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinot explore the complex personality of this fallen IDF commander in their new documentary “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story.”
The production integrates letters Netanyahu wrote to friends and family, read by New Zealander Marton Csokas, with interviews of family, friends, and the soldiers Netanyahu commanded, as well as family photos and video footage. They display a robust portrait of a man who is a legendary hero of Israel. These thoughts and recollections, entwined within the narrative of his own words and writings, reveal a directed and dedicated intellectual in soldier’s garb.
Netanyahu had a natural charisma. He was a man who had hardly begun to realize his life’s potential. A Zionist in the purest sense, Netanyahu’s love for the land of Israel, its history, physical geography and its people was unquestioned. Follow Me explores his life and his relationships — with his brothers, the women who loved him, and the soldiers he commanded.
“It is not just a story of Yoni, but a story of Israel,” says Gruber. The clarity of Netanyahu’s writing provides insights into his personality and gives voice to the potential of a soldier-scholar who always believed he had a higher purpose.
“I ought to be ready at every moment in my life to confront myself and say, ‘this is what I’ve done,’” Netanyahu wrote.
Amos Goren, interviewed in the film, was a 22-year-old commando who flew to Entebbe in the back seat of a Mercedes. He spoke to JointMedia News Service about the relationship between the “team” and its commander, Netanyahu.
“It was very different and very special, not what is expected in a formal military environment,” Goren says, describing the combination of mutual trust and dependence of a small, intimate team dedicated to “a very high level of execution.”
“Yoni was hit very early in the process of storming, probably within the first few minutes of the operation, two to three minutes after landing,” Goren recalls.
Goren says his team “had five or six entry points” at Entebbe. “The plan was kind of on automatic mode,” he says. “Each one knows what he had to do.”
As the team flew back to Israel, Goren says, “We were in a combination of shock about Yoni, yet elated that we were alive.”
Pinot says he was always impressed with the lyrical nature of Netanyahu’s life. The pathway to the creation of Follow Me was sparked by a book of Netanyahu’s letters (“Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu”), many returned to his family during the seven-day “shiva” mourning period following his death, and later published by his family as a way to preserve his character and memory.
The film, says the director, “mirrors the nature of [Netanyahu’s] life; it is not the story of Entebbe, but of Yoni.” The goal of the film, according to the producers, is to tell Israel’s story “through Yoni’s eyes,” providing those who knew and loved him with an opportunity to tell more.
JointMedia News Service attended a recent screening of “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The film is now in limited distribution in 17 American cities.