Assi Dayan, a 65 year-old Israeli film-maker, is slumped in front of a monitor on the set of his new movie. “My body is languishing,” he narrates. With his scant hair, sagging paunch and cigarette perched between his lips, you absolutely believe him. The fact that he’s telling us himself is remarkable, not just because of the turbulent life he recounts for us in Life as a Rumour, but because it feels stylised like a kind of posthumous television documentary, a form that is normally peppered with talking heads and recounts from friends and family instead of the subject himself. It is, in fact, made for TV; a three-part miniseries now repackaged as a feature-length presentation that climbs over the two-hour mark. It is also commemorative of a completed life because of Dayan’s death in May of this year, though it isn’t a tribute directed by the man himself, despite what the Jewish International Film Festival’s programme says, but one co-directed by Abi Ardel and Moish Goldberg. This explains the very traditional, repetitive, and sometimes awkward aesthetic that the film carries, which would be right at home on a small screen, but ironically it tells Dayan’s story well enough for us to know that it would never turn out that way under his stewardship. Having the artist himself as the singular narrator and perspective is the vital save that makes the film an enjoyable introduction to his amazing work.
The three episodes divide the material on a linear timeline, rather than any free-form thematic bent that Dayan may have gone for. We quickly become acquainted with his unusual childhood in the first part, as the son of infamous military leader and politician Moshe Dayan. Awestruck by the prophetic cult of personality surrounding their surname, Assi observes the friction and parallels between them with hardened wisdom. The second is Assi’s rise to film-making fame, hired as an actor on the strength of his father’s notoriety, and then given the leverage to make films both intimate and crude. He finds varying successes and failures, both in those professional endeavours and in his numerous marriages. This continues into the third segment, which highlights his late artistic rebirth but with it a downward spiral into depression and drug addiction. This places a strain on his already tenuous relationships with his own children and turns him more like his own father than he ever feared. Dayan relates all of it in a croaking tenor that carries all the wounds inflicted upon him, but he can still be wry when the time is right, such as his observation that one should be near a telephone when failing their own suicide attempt, or even as light a touch as his imitation of wily Cannon Group president Menahem Golan.1
Hearing Dayan tell us his exploits himself make them all the more staggering, and they will read that way regardless of how familiar a viewer is with him prior. His films all look fascinating, including even his bawdy sex comedies, since we know they were made primarily to pay off debts from his artistic endeavours. His need for writing as sustenance, and then for cocaine and Ritalin as fuel for writing, have consequences that he regrets with no small feeling, and the fallout is sketched well enough to not overreach for sympathy. The wide range of archival materials makes this feel more authentic, using a wide range of photos and TV broadcasts to give fresh context to everything he tells us, and consistently vitalise his oral history.
Unfortunately, though they have ample material to work with, Ardel and Goldberg don’t quite have a visual flair to match Dayan’s poignancy. Part One is particularly rough going, since they often manipulate the photos and black-and-white footage in naff ways, adding stock sounds and Photoshop trickery where it isn’t particularly welcome. Given the choice to present the three episodes together, the repeated guitar-rock music cues stand out, going from generic to irritating by the halfway mark as they inappropriately score sadder moments in Dayan’s life. Things pick up visually by this time at least, when we see moving video of both his movies and his television appearances. This is further diffused by segments showing his languishing body in the present day, with his own added observations, which bookend each of the parts. Long stretches of the film consistently feel off this way, considering both the tragedies of his bumpy journey to modern day and the surreal and existentialist pallor of his most celebrated work.
On the other hand, one could think Dayan would want this version – any version – of his story to be told before any cheap consumer-focussed biopic could be made. He might have known that it would discourage the kind of dream-like exploration and subversion he craved, but preferred that to one made by someone with the same base instincts he tapped into on his audience-driven movies, or one never made at all because of his paralysing depression and self-doubt. Though he is probably better immortalised in his most successful films, Life as a Rumour does a capable job of laying bare his greatest and most tragic exploits to the point where all of that may be inferred.2 It is compelling and informative, and in that way defiant of its own un-cinematic qualities.