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Bird in the Room

Distributed by Docs for Education, 10a Holland St., Afulla, Israel 18371; fax: 972-3-5291726
Produced by Directed by Ari Davidovich
Directed by Directed by Ari Davidovich
DVD , color, 67 min.
High School - General Adult
Acting, Art, Biography, Children’s Literature, Death, Depression, Family Relations, Fame, Folk Music, Hebrew Literature, Marriage, Mental Health, Music, Parenting, Poetry, Popular Culture, Songwriting, Storytelling, Suicide, Tel Aviv, Theater,

Reviewed by Caron Knauer, LaGuardia Community College, Long Island City, New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 2/15/2017

This scintillating and haunting documentary is a substantive introduction to the life and self-inflicted death of Tirza Atar (1941-1977), an Israeli poet, children’s book writer, actress, singer/songwriter, and translator, highlighting her enmeshed and complicated relationship with her father Nathan (Natan in Hebrew) Alterman (1910-1970), poet, translator, lyricist, and giant of Hebrew literature. Combining captivating cinematography of Tel Aviv with still photographs, clips of musical performances, interviews with Atar, her son and ex-husband, scholars, colleagues and friends of hers and Alterman’s Bird in the Room is a seamlessly edited, superb and soaring film.

Nathan Alterman was born in Poland and immigrated to Tel Aviv as a young man. He was a journalist, poet, playwright, and translator (of Racine and Shakespeare) who married the actress Rachel Marcus, although, he had a famously public and long-term affair with the painter Zila Binder. His politically charged and bohemian life as a leading cultural light enabled him to be an integral part in the birth of a new nation. His “Seventh Column” was an influential weekly op-ed column written in verse. Alterman wrote about his daughter, predicting her birth and untimely death three years before Tirza was born.

Tirza, an only child, was beautiful and to the artist’s life born. She was drawn to poetry and acting at an early age, and she exhibited a gift for both. She met her first husband, Oded Kotler, while performing in a play. He says she was “Beautiful with blue eyes the color of heaven. She was a mix of roguish and rhetoric.” They go to New York to study acting. They find Queens a “dismal” place. Tirza has a nervous breakdown and returns home to Israel. She leaves her husband and moves in with her parents. She begins to display erratic behavior, alternately manic and depressed. She moves out, continuing to write and act. She writes poems and songs, changing her name to distinguish herself from her father, though her poetry is influenced by her father’s, and she acts in a play he translated. Some cry nepotism. She meets and marries an uncomplicated man, Benjamin Salor, who provides stability, she has two children. She continues to be very close to her father—there’s a wonderful picture of Alterman with Tirza and her young daughter cavorting in a park. Tirza is prolific, writing poetry, songs, and children’s books—one of her most beloved books, The Lion that Loved Strawberries (2003), published in a new edition was a recent bestseller. Her charming son (born a few months after his famous grandfather’s death for whom he is named) is interviewed, although her daughter does not appear in the film. Nathan remembers a loving and organized mother who would come to his class to read her books, of course, embarrassing him.

Alterman dies at the age of 59. After his death, Tirza continued to speak of him in the present tense, claiming he protects her and is watching over her, his poem “Guard Thyself” is one in which she finds solace. In an interview, we see and hear her saying that when she’s fifty she’ll write the book about him that she wants to write. She wanted to publish forty of his poems after his death, thirty were about her. She delves into intertexuality wherein speakers in her poems address speakers in his. In the last year of her life, she translates a play in which one character commits suicide. A few cast members are interviewed, you can still see their shock. One says, “It was destiny.” Atar had written a song from the character’s point of view entitled “Ballad of a Woman”, which include the lyrics “In spite of it all, it’s all over.” One day while out with her young son, the 36 year-old Tirza runs into the street and gets hit by a taxi. He remembers her flying up in the air. She has a concussion and while in bed that night, Tirza jumps out of the window. Nathan is told by his father that she fell, it’s only when he’s grown and meets a woman who tells him that her mother was a suicide, too, that he learns the truth.

Many of the performed songs written by Atar and Alterman were televised in the 1960s (dig the fashions and graphics!) Israeli military bands and artists commissioned songs by poets, providing much-needed income. The scholarly critical analysis of both writers’ work is provocative and illuminating, stirring interest in the literature. Well-known Israeli popular singer, Ninet Tayeb, has been slated to star in an Israeli film in the works about Tirza’s life entitled Poppies in October, the title of a Sylvia Plath poem.

Ruth Margalit wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, about her “mother’s favorite Hebrew poem, in which the poet, Natan Alterman, describes his beloved as sudden forever. Those two words, as well as the poem’s title—‘A Meeting for Eternity’—are oxymorons that spell out the contradictions inherent in loss. What is the death of a loved one if not an oxymoron.” Perhaps Tirza’s urgent need to meet her father in eternity led to her leap, their destiny entwined in life and in words. Alterman’s poem written before the birth of his daughter included the lines “Death aligned with an open window / and a hovering over the city / floating like a bird.”