Mike (Asher Tzarfati) is a Vietnam vet deeply affected by the war and what he sees as state-approved murder for gain. Once his tour of duty was up, he couldn’t stand living in a country that condoned mass murder so he dropped out and started making his way through Europe. Hearing about how nice Israel was he hopped a plane and flew over to explore the country.
Shortly after arriving in Israel Mike is picked up on the side of the road by Elizabeth (Lilli Avidan), a statuesque redhead who inherited a great deal of money and is independently wealthy. Mike and Elizabeth immediately hit it off and decide to find a group of like-minded individuals who want to create their own country free of rules.
It doesn’t take long for the pair to meet 20 or so other hippies and Mike, as their unofficial leader, makes a speech about the real meaning of freedom: a life with no clothes, no one to answer to, no leaders, and no rules. They decide to relocate to an isolated island where they will be left alone to create their utopia but, just as the group is leaving, they are attacked by two mysterious men in top hats, tuxes, and gray face paint who machine gun the entire group. As the two mysterious men—who we met briefly as Mike and Elizabeth were driving to her apartment earlier in the film—disappear, the survivors of the shooting—Mike, Elizabeth, Komo (Shmuel Wolf), and Francoise (Tsilla Karny)—head toward the island of their dreams.
Once the four reach the island, they live it up, partying until the wee hours of the morning. Komo awakens first only to notice their boat drifted away during the night, stranding the group with no provisions and no way to reach the mainland. Even worse, Mike is attacked by two sharks when he tries to swim to the mainland, escaping back onto the island in the nick of time. As the girls get hungrier and crankier, the utopian experiment breaks down into anarchy as the friends pick sides, trying to survive their ordeal.
The above synopsis does more justice to An American Hippie in Israel than it rightfully should. Unable to find a distributor upon completion in 1972, the film, directed by Amos Sefer, was shelved and thought to be lost until it resurfaced around 2006. Widely considered one of the worst movies ever made—and THE worst Israeli movie ever, the film was revived by Grindhouse Releasing who has put out a deluxe Blu-Ray of the film and distributed it theatrically in America. The film has also seen quite a revival in its home country, with monthly showings that include Rocky Horror-style audience participation and reenactments on stage. Staging a Rocky Horror-style showing would definitely be the most entertaining way to view the film as it is overly long and quite boring.
The first half of the film is taken up by a great deal of walking around the city streets and driving to the island paradise the group has chosen for the location of their utopian experiment. Once on the island not much more happens except a great deal of arguing between the characters. I found myself checking the clock every few minutes to see how much longer the film would last, so playing a drinking game or having a group of friends over to watch the film certainly would liven things up.
As for the claim of being one of the worst movies ever made, An American Hippie in Israel may be in the top 20. This is primarily due to the stultifyingly dull script and direction. The scenes of Mike and Elizabeth walking around the city go on for far too long, as do the scenes of the hippie group walking to their base camp. And the drive to the island, which is supposed to only be “20 kilometers south of the city,” takes far too long, with very little happening. There are also plenty of unexplained occurrences and silly set pieces. For example, there is no explanation for the two strange men who follow Mike and haunt his dreams. Mike mentions these men have followed him across the European continent to Israel, but, aside for three very brief and unexplained appearances, there seems to be no explanation for who this pair is and what they want with Mike. There is a terrible dream sequence whereby Mike takes a very long hammer and knocks some large electronics off of these two men, crushing the electronic apparatuses with the hammer. Then Mike is awakened and again, the audience has no explanation for what was just seen. The two obviously fake sharks are pretty funny but my favorite stupid scene is a long scene when Mike is trying to communicate with the Hebrew-speaking-only Komo. The scene just goes on and on while Mike keeps saying he can’t understand Komo but at the same time, while knowing Komo can’t speak English, keeps insisting that Komo listen to him so he can understand. This is why you shouldn’t do drugs, kids! There’s even a goat that shows up only when convenient, with no explanation about how the goat has survived being on this desolate island or where it got off to.
The acting is terrible. The dialogue is terrible. The pacing is dreadful. So why watch this film? I can think of two reasons. First, the two female leads are very easy on the eyes and shed their clothes every few minutes (“I’m hot.” “You should just take off your clothes.” “Great idea!” Top comes off as girl stands in back seat of convertible.). Both leading ladies are easy on the eyes, for sure. The second reason is because of how serious the filmmakers took the film. Someone on the DVD states that the only way a movie becomes a cult movie is if the filmmakers think they are making a great film when they clearly aren’t. That statement is very true. The earnestness of these filmmakers shines through this picture. Because of this, one can’t help but like the kitschy feel this movie is infused with by the filmmakers. I think that’s the same reason Plan 9 from Outer Space has become so popular. Ed Wood always believed in his films which is one reason his films are still popular. That earnestness shines through not just in Ed Wood’s films but also in this, Amos Sefer’s one attempt at filmmaking success.
In the end, An American Hippie succeeds on no single level, but the sum of its parts are such that when put together as a whole—and especially with an audience who appreciates just how bad this film truly is—it succeeds as something more than just another low-budget 1970’s oddity. This is An American Hippie in Israel. See it in all it’s unadulterated, yawn-inducing glory.
The film itself is pretty terrible but, true to form, Grindhouse releasing has created a deluxe package for a film that probably should have remained on the shelf to begin with. And this is where the fun begins. Some of the extras are real ephemera—items only diehard fans might be interested in—such as silent screen test, several deleted scenes that really don’t amount to much, and Sefer’s only other film, a 6-minute silent short that manages to be even more confusing than his only feature film. But there are lots of gems that are well worth the price of admission including short interviews with Tzarfati and Wolf, production designer Moshe Berman, and one of the singers from the film, Susan Devore. There is also a hilarious 10-minute segment from Israeli news about the film’s revival as well as a more serious piece on how the movie has reached cult status in Israel. Along with an original trailer there is also an alternate track, “The Beverly Cinema Experience,” which is an audience track recorded during one of the film’s showings in Los Angeles. But, by far, the centerpiece of the special features is a nearly hour-long, in-depth interview with lead Asher Tzarfati, who is about the only person from this film who went on to have a serious career in entertainment. He reminisces about his youth, his filmic influences, memories making the film, and his memories making several other films along the way. Rounding out the package is a nice set of liner notes by John Skipp.
The film has been remastered and looks spectacular. It really shouldn’t look as good as it does, which is a testament to the loving care that the folks at Grindhouse Releasing put into their library. For all the detractors who complain about early announcements and long waits from Grindhouse, all I can say is their overall packages—especially given the material they normally have to work with—are simply superior.
An American Hippie in Israel is available at through Grindhouse Releasing at http://grindhousereleasing.com/ or the film is also available for purchase at Amazon.