To be honest, I’m torn about whether or not I think An American Hippie in Israel is a bad film. Before saying this about a movie that is cited as one of the worst of all time gets my film critic credentials revoked (not that there are any to revoke), I want to fully acknowledge that the acting is bad, the plot is virtually non-existent (and nonsensical where it does exist), the sound design is amateurish, and the pacing is at points mind-numbing. Pretty much the only thing that isn’t technically bad is the cinematography which actually looks quite good, but even that has problems (for example, the cameraman’s shadow gets captured in some shots). In the words of Bob Murawski, whose company distributes the film, An American Hippie in Israel has “some strange ideas of plot, pacing and characterization, and maybe some bad acting, but the makers of these movies put their heart and soul into them 100 percent and made them with absolute sincerity.” Despite the film’s many flaws, I find myself inexplicably drawn to its bizarre portrait of Vietnam and its on-the-nose, but still confusingly opaque view of the world.
The eponymous hippie is a man named Mike (Asher Tzarfati), who arrives in Israel by plane clad in a sheepskin vest, a wide-brimmed hat, and no shoes. After limited success trying to hitchhike, he is picked up by an actress named Elizabeth (Lily Avidan). Mike convinces Elizabeth to join him in starting a community of hippies, the majority of whom are gunned down by two mysterious men that resemble Lost Highway’s Mystery Man, complete with deathly white makeup, black suits, and top hats that make them look like demonic undertakers. The notable lack of blood, dreamlike quality to the mystery men, and positioning of the bodies mean that it’s also entirely possible that everyone wasn’t gunned down, potentially having just passed out instead—the movie isn’t entirely clear on this point.
Mike and Elizabeth, joined by surviving group members Komo (Shmuel Wolf, who has one of the most unique faces in the history of cinema) and Françoise (Tzila Karney). Their goal is to settle on a small island off the coast where no one lives and start their community, which they believe is “a place in which we can live as we see fit, without clothes, without governments, and without orders.” After a time, the quartet arrives at the island. Even though the island is almost completely barren, isolated, and devoid of shelter, the group rows over to begin their new life.
After a night of celebrating, Komo realizes that their boat washed away after they didn’t pull it far enough onshore. Mike tries to swim to shore but is stopped by two sharks (which are strongly implied to be the mystery men). Things only devolve from there, with tensions rising as the group fails to find food and drinking water. Eventually, a fight breaks out, and each couple retreats to different parts of the island, only to be brought back together after they remember that they brought a goat to the island. In their haste to get to the goat, the group gets into one final brawl, beating each other in a pile on the ground. Mike is the last character left standing, presumably having killed the others (including the goat). He lets out an animalistic bellow and then collapses onto the pile (also presumably dead? As you can see, the movie is very unclear about basic things like “did any of the characters survive?”) as the two mystery men get into the group’s car on the other side of the water.
An American Hippie in Israel presents a very clear anti-war message throughout. Early in the film, Mike recounts to Elizabeth his experiences in Vietnam, where he fought for two years at age 19. His experiences haunt him, and a case could be made that the two mystery men are the physical embodiments of “The Man” but also of his undiagnosed PTSD from these experiences. I need to put a caveat here to say that I’m hardly a medical doctor, but Mike suffers many of the other symptoms of PTSD, including symbolism-laden nightmares (which we will get into later) and flashbacks. He even admits that his experiences are what led him to “bum around” the world; he was “trying to run away, run away from this stinking world, from a society that turns us into messengers of doom, into robots!” Mike ends his impassioned monologue by looking directly into the camera and delivering the instantly iconic line “you fools, stop pushing buttons.”
Occasionally, we see Mike’s dreams. The first time, we learn later, is actually the opening credits which he experienced while on the airplane to Israel. As with few things in the movie, it is not particularly subtle: a field of flowers gets run over by a driverless steamroller while what sounds like gunfire and artillery thunder in the background. Later, there is a completely silent 3.5-minute slow-motion dream sequence. Among the sequences in the dream are a man whipping people in the desert, a bourgeois family gorging themselves on food, and, most incredibly, Mike hitting two men with oversized computers for heads with a comically large hammer.
It’s clear that writer/director Amos Sefer believes that war, imperialism, technology, and capitalism are fundamental problems with our world. Despite the portrayal of hippies and the ultimate fate of the group, neither of which are hinted at during the first half of the film, I don’t believe that Mike’s monologues, dreams, trauma, and beliefs are meant to be insincere. A short film by Sefer included on the Blu-ray called Be Careful Children the Ball Is Not Just Yours deals with similar themes; the short depicts several infantilized men that are fighting over a ball. Since Sefer didn’t do subtlety very well, the ball they are fighting over is a globe. However, it is also clear that he doesn’t believe that the classic “turn on, tune in, drop out” attitude of hippie counterculture is the answer to these problems.
Sefer seems to view hippie culture as a different side of the same coin. This is illustrated through a line in Mike’s “you fools” speech when he says “a push on the button and we are turned into wild animals.” This quote subtly foreshadows the group’s devolution to animalistic violence at the ending of the film; it wasn’t men in suits with buttons that brought the group to the point of murdering each other (unless you count the mostly metaphorical mystery men), but rather Mike and his decisions. Françoise makes this point abundantly clear when she tells Mike “you sucked us right in with your smooth talk, you lied to us. You got us into this mess.”
Whether intentional or not, Mike bears a striking resemblance to notorious hippie cult leader Charles Manson. I’d like to imagine that this was the genesis of An American Hippie in Israel: what if Charles Manson came to Israel? Given that the Sharon Tate murder and subsequent trial were only about two years before the film was produced, it is certainly possible that the notion of a hippie cult leader leading his group astray could have affected Sefer’s development of the story.
In an interview included on the Blu-ray, actor Shmuel Wolf provides his interpretation of Sefer’s satire:
It was really the peak of the hippie era, the beatnik time. And he, in some way, I think he was criticizing the falseness of the whole thing. On the illusions, on the point on the illusionary aspect of the Utopian hope of love and so on. Because in the final run, in the movie, everything shatters to smithereens. So there is this American guy, played by Asher Tzarfati, an American guy comes along and everyone loves him, and it turns out that everything’s bad, that the foundation is no good.
If hippie counterculture isn’t the answer, what is? Unfortunately, Sefer doesn’t answer or even hint at alternatives, so we can only speculate. It’s worth wondering if the group failed because Mike was a hippie or because he was an American hippie. Maybe the answer is Israeli hippies without American influence. The film portrayed what seemed to be a vibrant hippie subculture in Israel that only began to suffer once Mike arrived. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter—maybe American identity is too ingrained in hippie counterculture. Maybe Mike’s cultural imperialism isn’t much better than the military imperialism of Vietnam he hated so much.
This final point may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if Sefer’s critique of hippies extends all the way to the concept of love. Love was obviously a dominant concept for hippies, from “make love not war” to free love. Mike’s “you fools” speech ends after Elizabeth abruptly kisses him. They have sex immediately after, and it’s at this point that Mike tells Elizabeth about his wish to start a secluded community, with Elizabeth deciding to go with him. Maybe if the pair didn’t fall in love, they would have been able to find peace or effect change, instead of uselessly killing each other on a barren island.
At the heart of my indecision about if An American Hippie in Israel is good or bad is whether or not the sum of the parts I’ve described in this essay are enough to transcend our notions of good and bad. I find everything in the film absolutely fascinating. Yes, there are plenty of unintentionally hilarious moments, and I’ll admit that there is also a great deal of objectively boring nonsense, but even these instances occur in the most rivetingly alien and bizarre ways possible. Beyond the ironic enjoyment the audience gets out of the “so-bad-they’re-good” elements, it is attempting to do so many interesting things that I genuinely think it challenges our notions of “good taste.” The final verdict on the film might be best put by Mike himself: “Man, this is really fantastic! Really out of sight!”