“It’s important to me that Tamar be remembered for her delightful personality and her aspiration to succeed,” said Anat Ariel, in a 2019 interview with The Jerusalem Post, five years after her 25-year-old daughter’s death. “I want her name to evoke values such as perseverance, determination, love for her country, its people and her fellow human beings.”
The occasion of the interview was the announcement that the Defense and Heritage Division of the Defense Ministry of Israel had recognized Capt. Tamar Ariel as an official fallen soldier – that she died while attempting to save lives even though she had not died while taking part in an active Israeli air force military operation.
“It was extremely difficult to demonstrate how our case fit the law,” Anat said. “There was already plenty of evidence, and we gathered even more testimonials and refined others, which helped our case.”
In “A Mirror for the Sun,” director and writer Neta Ariel tells Tamar’s story. Growing up in an Orthodox home in a moshav in southern Israel, Tamar did her two years of voluntary national service and then joined the Israeli Defense Forces. In January 2013, she finished her pilot training course and became the first female religious navigator in the air force. Tamar participated in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, with the stated objective of stopping rocket attacks by Hamas, and she was chosen as the unit’s most outstanding fighter.
In October 2014, Tamar went on a trip with friends to the Himalayas in Nepal. During a trek on the Annapurna Trail, the group got stuck in a severe and unexpected snowstorm, during which Tamar immediately took charge, gave instructions, encouraged people she encountered along the way, and warmed up those who were suffering from the intense cold. Tamar, three of her Israeli friends, and many members of the group of international hikers perished. But others survived thanks to her efforts.
This is a captivating story, but Neta Ariel’s 2018 documentary is not very captivating storytelling. Indeed, the film comes across as an hour-long collection of the kind of evidence and testimony that was used to support Tamar’s fallen soldier status rather than an exploration of the many trials, tribulations and triumphs that made up a promising life cut short.
This is in large part due to the overt sentimentality of the film’s narrative voice, generated by the images and interviews selected by the director, who is Tamar Ariel’s aunt. It is abetted by Amit Ben Atar’s mournful music that underscores much of the film, as well as Adva Shushan’s melodramatic editing.
Perhaps “A Mirror for the Sun” is lacking because, as Neta Ariel’s first documentary, it is missing much of the finesse one would expect from a film making the festival circuit. There’s a reliance on single-camera interviews with former commanders, cockpit colleagues, and fellow travelers that makes the work top-heavy with testimonials. The non-linear storytelling embraced in the first half of the film – where the narrative jumps back and forth from Tamar’s youth, military training, and Himalayan trek – serves no greater good in relaying the story. And in an unfortunate effort to enhance the drama in still photography from the Annapurna Trail, torrential snowfall is unnecessarily animated over the images.
The documentary also suffers from its narrow focus and the issues not tapped in its 60 minute run-time. Not explored is how Tamar’s prestigious role in the military became a symbol for many religious girls and had an even greater impact on the population of young Orthodox women mulling meaningful military service. Not explored is the opposition Tamar must have faced – that all pioneering women face – when breaking through barriers. Surely there were members of the Israeli military and Orthodox Jewish community who were none too pleased with Tamar’s exploits.
That Tamar accomplished so much in the 25 years she was alive – and did so while em-bracing Jewish values – is nicely captured in this documentary. That she continues to have an impact on others even after her death is not.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. He was named best in Ohio for reviews/criticism in the Press Club of Cleveland’s 2021 All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards.