After Easy Rider proved that there was a market for non-traditional films aimed at counterculture youth, a whole new genre of film rose up to meet the demand. This is kind of film could be called the “experience” film: in such a film, entertainment and other traditional storytelling concerns were downplayed in favor of uninhibited artistic self-expression. They often dealt with controversial issues, showing the audience another way of life or simply experimenting with what a feature film could be.
Both major studios and independent filmmakers eagerly explored on this trend, creating a rich history of offbeat cinema that cult movie buffs have obsessed over for decades. However, a lot of these films (especially the indie kind) were lost over time as they fell out of fashion. Some of them never even got a shot at mass exposure in their own time. An American Hippie In Israel is a good example of the latter category, an Israeli effort that never found proper distribution. Most cult movie fans didn’t even know it existed until Grindhouse Releasing presented a trailer for it as a coming attraction on their home video releases.
An American Hippie In Israel has recently been reissued by Grindhouse, playing theaters and finally getting a home video release. This once-mysterious film has been revealed to be a true exercise in experience filmmaking. The protagonist of the piece is Mike (Asher Tzarfati), an American veteran of the Vietnam War who is bumming his way around the world. He finds himself in Israel, where things start to look up: he meets a romantically-inclined actress (Lily Avidan) and starts talking with the local hippies about dropping out of society to put together their own culture.
However, trouble intrudes on Mike’s dreams when a pair of silent assassins that have been following him turn up and shoot down most of the hippie crowd. Mike and his lady love make it out with another hippie couple (Shmuel Wolf, Tzila Karney) and they set out to an obscure island in their bid to create a hippie paradise. However, this dream curdles when they are confronted with the hard realities of living apart from society – and their paradise transforms into a countercultural Dante’s inferno.
Like many an experience film, An American Hippie In Israel is long on artistic passion and short on restraint. If you want to treat the film as MST3K-style joke fodder, there is plenty of material to be found: the story wanders all over the map, the dialogue is quotably ripe, the actors devour the scenery, the dubbing adds an additional layer of eccentricity and the whole enterprise is shot through with a mixture of pretentious ambitions and naiveté on how such artsiness can be achieved.
However, that’s just one level of fun going on here. Anyone can make a bad movie. An American Hippie In Israel takes things into “outsider art” territory. Essentially, this is a film in three parts. The first part is classic “youthsploitation” material, complete with free love and hippie kids grooving at a spontaneous be-in. The second part is a road movie offering a counterculture travelogue with a little dash of film-school surrealism via a dream sequence. The final part is like a particularly crazed one-act play, dishing out a feverish, operatic allegory about the death of the peace-and-love generation.
The results don’t hit with the concentrated impact of the film’s now-infamous trailer but the sprawl is frequently hypnotic. Ya’ackov Kallach’s cinematography is often quite impressive, using a lot of hand-held camerawork and dramatic close-ups to conjure up the intense atmosphere Sefer is striving for. The four central actors, particularly Tzarfati, show such dedication to the story in the film’s final third that watching their antics might send you into an altered state of consciousness. There’s also a strong period charm to the film: if you’re fascinated by the time capsule aspect of experience films, there is plenty to feast on here in the fashions, decor and the soundtrack’s wall-to-wall mixture of earnest folk music and psychedelic grooves.
However, the key thing worth connecting with in An American Hippie In Israel is the unabashed, let-it-all-hang-out passion that Sefer invests his film with. Like many self-made filmmakers that follow the Ed Wood path of filmmaking, he has a unorthodox take on every element of filmmaking – how people talk, how a film should be structured and how to express unconventional themes – and is hell-bent on making you it see it his way.
Sefer’s lone feature film is thus the rarest of cinematic artifacts: a film that is genuinely unpredictable. You may not understand what Sefer is trying to tell you – but devotees of outsider-art cinema will marvel at the personality with which he expresses himself.