By Yael Ingel
On October 7, Nadav Mishali wasn’t actually in Ofakim, the southern Israeli which is his home. Instead, he was visiting family who live in central Israel. Two days after the most terrible Saturday we have ever known, he returned to help his hometown and its people.
A few days later, he was approached by Tal Biliya, a good friend of his from his high school days. Tal lost his brother on that awful day. He knew that Nadav was very familiar with Ofakim and that he was a filmmaker, so he said to him: “Go out and film what’s happening here. People have stories to tell. People need to know what happened here!” This appeal, which came straight from the heart of a bereaved brother, gave Nadav the push he needed to get up and do something – to do his part to preserve the history and the tragedy of this southern city.
Over the years, Ofakim had been relatively peaceful, aside from occasional rocket fire which is common in this region. The city is situated about 19 kilometers from the Gaza Strip and had never experienced terrorist infiltrations, unlike some of the communities located closer to the Gaza Strip. On that dark Saturday, Ofakim suffered the worst day in its history. Around 50 of the city’s residents were murdered, including civilians and members of the security forces. The shock was enormous, as was the heartbreak. Now, a few weeks later, more and more people can be seen on the streets as they attempt to resume their daily routine. The attempts to pick up the broken pieces and go back to normal can be felt throughout the city, and civil servants and other local functionaries have mobilized to respond to the residents’ needs.
Nadav, who serves as the director of the Ofakim Cinematheque, took it upon himself to do the sacred work of producing video documentation of the stories that unfolded in his hometown on October 7. With the help of Miriam Toizer, a social activist and Yad L’Banim volunteer, he has been recording the difficult testimonies of the events that took place in this quiet city that was taken by surprise and subjected to brutal attack on the morning of the Simchat Torah holiday.
The first account Nadav recorded was that of the Biliya family, the family of his friend Tal whose brother Ariel was murdered that Saturday. Nadav spoke with them while they were still sitting shiva – mourning their terrible loss. Ariel was 28 years old. He was murdered while trying to protect ten members of his family, including his wife and their two young children. He made sure to get everyone out through the window in his parents’ home where they were all gathered, over to the small balcony that holds the home’s solar water heater. Their lives were all saved but Ariel was not able to escape the terrorists in time.
At first Nadav was dissuaded by the enormity of it all. “Who am I to point a camera at these people while they’re in mourning, during these difficult moments? I felt like I was pulling out a weapon when I took the camera out of my bag in front of the bereaved families.” He quickly noticed the effect that the camera had on the people around him. “Ariel’s wife started speaking to me, telling me what had happened, and she suddenly got up from her chair to show me the window they had all escaped from. She started to reenact everything that happened, totally spontaneously, without having planned it out, without me asking her to. That’s when I remembered the power of film.”
That same day, Nadav also interviewed Michal Biliya, Ariel’s mother, in whose home they all hid and where he was murdered. The Biliya family’s home is burned and completely destroyed from the battle that took place there, but when Nadav asked Michal if she’d be willing to go back, she answered, “Of course! It’s my home!” Nadav says that he has gotten the same response from other interviews as well; Ofakim residents aren’t willing to leave and in fact they feel even more connected to their city ever since the terrible events that took place there.
That first interview encouraged Nadav to continue documenting the families of those who were murdered, especially once he saw how valuable this documentation was. “I quickly understood that the camera wasn’t something threatening but rather comforting, and I do everything I can to make it transparent so that the person sitting across from me sees me, speaks to me. I’ve realized for example that it’s best if the camera isn’t standing on a tripod; that seems too threatening. But if it’s in my hands, it’s more humane.”
Even before he started this special project, Nadav (37) was a known figure in the cultural life of Ofakim and had influenced it a great deal. He was born in Ofakim to parents who had emigrated from Morocco, and was raised in a traditional but open-minded home. Nadav chose to attend a religious school and later joined a yeshiva, but when he enlisted in the IDF, he decided he’d no longer wear a kippah, though he remained faithful to his beliefs.
During his student days, he decided to make a film about an old movie theater that had operated in Ofakim during the 1970s and 1980s. He cherishes childhood memories of visiting the old “Cinema Merchavim” theater and it was a painful moment for him when the establishment went out of business in the 1990s and became an abandoned ruin. When Mishali moved back to Ofakim, he started working on a plan to reintroduce film culture and its accompanying discourse into the city.
Nadav knows that having a movie theater in Ofakim is no trivial matter, explaining that in a city with such a hometown feel, a movie theater has special significance. “It’s something that opens up your mind as well as your heart.” He laughed while telling us about the seemingly conservative city, that allows its own residents, living and working inside it, to change the community from within.
This place where everyone knows everyone is unique in that it has always enabled its residents to initiate, invent, and impact the reality around them. Instead of living and working in central Israel, Nadav chose to live in the city where he was born, and to affect change there. In addition to being a creative artist, he has also become a social activist and entrepreneur. He has undertaken his life’s work in Ofakim: his cinematheque has been in operation since 2016.
The theater can hold up to 90 people, who come to watch movies from the past and present. The Ofakim Cinematheque also serves as a cultural center that hosts lectures, meetings, and cultural events with artists from all over Israel. At first, the cinematheque was treated as a bit of an oddity, something that seemed out of place, but now, the locals can’t even imagine the city without it.
During the first few weeks of the war, the cinematheque moved its screenings to various shelters, schools and gardens, but once it became possible, the films returned to the theater, which has its own bomb shelter, in order to provide a sense of normalcy. The movies being shown are meticulously selected, with the main goal being to empower and encourage anyone who has made the decision to leave home and go see a movie.
“The community in Ofakim is amazing. The people are amazing. I know all of them and of course that helps me to enter their homes or go to their memorial services or tombstone unveilings. The heroism that we saw here takes different forms. I’ve seen nobility and enormous soul in every story.” Nadav views his project as an opportunity to reveal a city whose people are often invisible to external eyes.
One Ofakim resident who has received a lot of publicity is Rachel Edri, whose home was taken over by terrorists on October 7. She offered these Hamas jihadists cookies and drinks as well as medical care, thus buying time for security forces to organize a rescue operation that saved her and her husband’s lives. Nadav says: “Rachel’s story is obviously amazing and represents Ofakim and its sense of hospitality, but I interviewed everyone who was willing, not only bereaved families but also people who were injured or who bore witness. I made it my goal to interview all of them. Including people who didn’t do something we might consider heroic. I wanted to interview everyone who is invisible to the media.”
One of the many interviews he recorded was with the family of the late Aharon Paresh, a Sergeant Major in the IDF’s Technology and Maintenance Corps, who served on the Re’im Base near his home in Ofakim and was called up to report for duty there on that awful morning. He engaged in combat with one of the terrorists before he was murdered. His wife spoke with Nadav about the deep sense of loneliness that has remained with her ever since.
Another interview that remains deeply etched in Nadav’s heart was with the family of the late Aharon Haimov. “Aharon was a senior medic with the Magen David Adom ambulatory service. He was a Haredi man who generally didn’t work on Shabbat, but he was called up that day and of course he didn’t hesitate to head out towards Kibbutz Urim,” Nadav says. “He hadn’t even made it past the city’s western exit when the terrorists got to him and shot him, he was killed on the spot. When I spoke with his wife, I heard about what a special personality he was, and what a huge gap he left behind. She held a picture of him, and you could feel the love with which she spoke of him.”
The testimonies that Nadav Mishali is documenting in Ofakim, along with other projects aimed at documenting the testimony of those who were in the Western Negev region on that horrible day of October 7, are being collected for safekeeping at the National Library of Israel.
The Library which, among other things, is dedicated to the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, has established “Bearing Witness” – a project dedicated to documenting the events, testimonies and aftermath of October 7, 2023.
For further information and inquiries about collecting testimony, click here.
To help support the documentation team in Ofakim, which is working on a completely voluntary basis, please call Nadav at 054-5887669 or email him at [email protected]
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”. Click here to see all of the articles and stories.