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The violence of the Israel-Palestine conflict marked Winner’s life early, and trauma became the preoccupation of his art.
On the morning of October 7th, as Hamas militants paraglided over Israel’s razor-wire fence to carry out a mass killing, Yahav Winner was waking up to his newborn daughter, Shaya, in his family’s home, in an idyllic desert community with fields of sunflowers and rows of palm trees. Winner and his wife, Shaylee Atary, both filmmakers, had started their family where Winner grew up, in the Kfar Aza kibbutz, a village of some seven hundred residents, just a few kilometres from the border that separates Israel and Gaza. That morning, she described, seventy Hamas militants surrounded Winner and Atary’s home. When a Hamas fighter’s arm burst through their bedroom window, Winner seemed to grasp that the entire family couldn’t survive. He fought off the intruders, and flashed a hand signal for his wife to flee. Atary, who has a disability that affects her left leg, limped out the door with their sleeping daughter in her arms. Outside in a courtyard, the militants were going from house to house—Atary could hear the muffled whistles of gunshots through silencers. She found refuge in a garden shed, and hid among empty pots and topsoil. After what seemed like an hour, her sleeping baby woke and began to cry. Sucking on Atary’s pinky didn’t quiet the infant. So Atary ran again, trying each house, until she found refuge for herself and Shaya in the safe room of some family friends. When they emerged, twenty-seven hours later, Atary found the village in ruins, and her husband missing. She hoped that he was among the more than two hundred hostages taken by Hamas to Gaza. She found out while being interviewed on live TV that he had, in fact, been killed. “He gave his life, I feel, to love me,” Atary told me. “I’ll miss him for the rest of my life.”
The violence of the Israel-Palestine conflict marked Winner’s life early. During a previous round of fighting, in 2008, when Winner was in his twenties, he was working in the garden with his best friend’s father when a Hamas-fired rocket landed and blew the other man to pieces. Atary says the experience shaped Winner’s life: “His soul broke,” Atary told me, when we spoke. “His trauma started there.”
Trauma became the preoccupation of his work. It’s at the center of Winner’s final film, “The Boy,” a hauntingly beautiful short that captures the dissonance of life along the Israel-Gaza border. The film’s main character, Barak, a young adult in Kfar Aza, is unable to ignore the reality of life for his Palestinian neighbors. While his father, Avinoam, works in the fields, Barak is fixated on the distant echo of shooting in Gaza. As he intensely watches the news about the latest round of violence, his aloof brother badgers him to change the channel to a reality show: “ ‘Ninja’ ’s on, I don’t want to watch your crap.” Barak is clearheaded about the tragic context of his surroundings. That clarity takes a toll; we see him feel anxious, and sometimes clash with family members. Barak offers a poignant example of recognizing the humanity of others. “The main character is very heartbroken about the fact that he knows people are like him on the other side of the fence,” Atary said, of her husband’s film.
Atary and Winner met thirteen years ago, as creative collaborators in Tel Aviv, where both were part of the tight-knit arts scene. Much like his character, Winner struggled with P.T.S.D. And, yet, friends describe him as open, generous, and funny—“a true sweetheart,” as one old colleague put it. The couple decided to start a family together. Kfar Aza, with its communal living, old-fashioned atmosphere, and beautiful natural surroundings, offered an oasis—even with the occasional rocket fire. “Our doors are always open,” Atary said. “This is how much we felt community.” They hoped the stories they created together there could make the political situation a little better.
Israel’s filmmakers have long been a moral conscience for the country. Films like “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras” exposed global audiences to the harsh reality that Palestinians face under occupation, and many such films were supported by a state ministry, in what some considered to be a sign of the country’s democratic strength. Under the now entrenched power of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud government, however, public funds for projects deemed to be pro-Palestinian have been harder to find, and many directors have gravitated toward more apolitical themes.
In “The Boy,” Winner offers a commentary on life along that Israel-Gaza border that’s subtle but unflinching. Halfway through the film, an alarm roars, “RED ALERT,” to warn of an incoming rocket from Gaza. The kibbutz residents, familiar with this aspect of life on the border, rush to the nearest bomb shelter. Barak stays put in the cafeteria. He is grappling with an idea that his fellow community members would rather ignore: as long as the two million residents of nearby Gaza aren’t able to live in safety, too, then life can come crashing down with one errant rocket.
Samuel Maoz, one of Israel’s most celebrated directors, was a mentor of Winner, and his yellow-glazed films, like “Lebanon,” clearly inspired the younger director’s work. I spoke to Maoz after he returned home from Winner’s funeral, which was delayed by a week because of the many bodies that had to be identified and buried. Maoz shuffled through their old texts on WhatsApp and noticed that his last message checking in on Winner was never received. “I guess he was already dead,” Maoz said with a sigh. Winner had gone to Maoz for guidance early in the development of “The Boy,” but the elder director said that he had learned from Winner, too. “Working with [Yahav] made me a better director,” said Maoz, who has won top prizes at some of the world’s major film festivals. “All that remains now is his direct, honest, naïve, and bare look—floating in the air.”
Some traces do remain. When he died, Winner was in production on his début feature film, this one starring himself and his wife, and set in his beloved Kfar Aza. Half of the film’s subjects are now dead. In one scene, Winner kisses his then pregnant wife, as she lies on their bed and ponders their life ahead as a family. “She’s grown,” Winner says, stroking Atary’s belly. In that same room several months later, Winner would fight to save their lives.
“I hope I will see the light,” Atary said, reflecting on their decade creating art together. “We always, always in life try to look for the little light.”