Reflections on the movie Golda by Brett Ashley Kaplan
On August 23rd, the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation in collaboration with the UIUC Department of Jewish Studies hosted a private showing of the upcoming film Golda. Prior to the film, a panel of three local female poitical leaders reflected on their leadership experience through the lens of their gender. The panel was moderated by published author and professor Brett Ashley Kaplan. Below are the remarks shared by Dr. Kaplan prior to the panel as well as her reflection after having viewed the film.
It would be great if we didn’t have to have a discussion of “women in politics”; alas, it’s still the case, according to the UN, that less than one third of politicians globally are women: “As of 1 January 2023, there are 31 countries where 34 women serve as Heads of State and/or Government. At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.” Too Slow.
But it’s great to see that in C-U there are women politicians and CUJF’s Andrea Aguiar and Ma’ayan Weinberg invited three of our local women politicians to reflect on gender and politics before we saw, as a special pre-release screening to an entirely packed theater at the Savoy, a film starring Helen Mirren about Golda Meir. A few basic facts about the historical “Golda”:
Golda Meir was born in 1898 in Kiev; due to starvation, antisemitism, and the constant threat of violence, she fled with her family to Milwaukee in 1906; bit big by the bug of Labor Zionism, and fueled by her horrific experiences in Kiev, she determined to migrate to Palestine, which she did in 1921. There she quickly demonstrated her leadership skills and eventually took on a number of roles in the Israeli government including labor secretary and foreign minister before becoming Prime Minister from 1969-1974. She died in 1978.
In her very recent (published August 15th of this year!) biography Deborah Lipstadt sums up the problem and question of talking about Golda:
“If the laudatory works depict a woman who built a nation, sent men into battle, negotiated treaties, spoke truth to power, and still found time to make homemade chicken soup, her critics depict a Golda who is domineering, uneducated, unimaginative, incapable of conceptual thinking, and unable to break out of her preconceived perceptions about many things, particularly the peace process…Who, then, was the real Golda Meir?”
Director Guy Nattiv, who was a baby during the Yom Kippur War but has grown up with his parent’s memory of that day in 1973 says: “My curiosity about who was this human behind the legend during these ten days is why I wanted to cinematically take this story on. I wanted to open up the claustrophobic war rooms during those tense hours, where Golda was surrounded by misogynistic commanders, still bloated with ego from the 1969 Six Day War, and now on the brink of personal doom. "Golda" is not a traditional biography of a leader, nor is it a war film. It is a magnified look at a female leader nearing the end of her life, suddenly trapped inside smokey rooms facing total destruction.”
Before the screening, we asked three local women politicians to tell us their stories and to reflect on gender and politics. They were Diane Marlin, Julia Rietz, and Heather Manigan (introductions below drawn from their websites).
Diane Wolfe Marlin is the 50th mayor of Urbana. She grew up on a farm in LaSalle County, Illinois and has lived in Urbana since 1971. She earned a BS in Human Development and an MS in Foods and Nutrition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked as a Registered Dietitian and Affiliate Faculty member at Parkland College. She was elected to the Urbana City Council in 2009, re-elected in 2013 and was sworn in as Mayor of Urbana on May 1, 2017.
Julia Rietz has served as the Champaign County state’s attorney since 2004 and is currently serving her fifth term in office. A 1993 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law, she began her legal career as a prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s Office, prosecuting cases ranging from traffic to homicides, and focusing on child abuse and neglect. From 1999 through 2004, Julia was in private practice as a partner at Beckett & Webber in Urbana, focusing on family law.
Heather Manigan is currently serving her first term as Trustee of the Village of Savoy during which she will focus on strategic growth, fiscal responsibility, infrastructure, and connecting the community and its green spaces with bike and pedestrian paths. Heather holds a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and a M.S. in Companion Animal Nutrition from the University of Illinois, and her career focused on improving health through nutrition for humans and companion animals as a Sr. Research Scientist at UIUC.
We asked them the following questions:
- Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, including:
- where you grew up and where you have lived for most of your adult life;
- how long you have served in your current political role and whether you served in other public service roles prior to your present role;
- and finally, what led you to a career in public service.
- In what ways do you see gender and politics intersecting and/or clashing in your role?
- Are there women politicians who inspire you? Conversely, are there women politicians who are anti-models for you?
- Do you think it’s making a difference in America that for the first time in our history a woman is VP?
- Based on what you have learned from the other panelists tonight, do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with the audience?
Reflections on the film:
I was very glad that, in preparation for this special pre-release screening of Golda, I had seen the Ingrid Bergman biopic, A Woman Named Golda (1982) and read (most of) the new Deborah Lipstadt biography: Golda Meir (Yale, August 15, 2023). Had I not done those things I think the film would have been a bit confusing—it’s not really Golda but rather a few days in the life of Golda during an incredibly tense time (the Yom Kippur War). All of which is to say, don’t expect to get the facts of her life from the film. But it does offer a cinematically appealing, tense and emotional take on what it must have been like to be the leader of a small, fledging country and under attack. The film does not address the morality of the attack: it stays very close to Golda’s perspective and thus avoids some of the complicated but potentially interesting ethical questions raised by the war.
There’s a lot of smoking. My favorite scene in the film is when Golda is lying in bed and she smokes a cigarette (the historical Golda Meir was, indeed, an avid smoker) and as the room fills with smoke you realize there is way more smoke than would be realistic and the smoke keeps billowing and thickening and growing and it becomes a metaphor for the fog of war, for the horrible position of being a leader of a nation sending your troops to battle to fight and likely to die. It’s one of a few touches of magical realism that I found very effective in deepening the mood of the cinematic take on these few days in history.
Helen Mirren is a very different Golda than Ingrid Bergman. The Bergman biopic tackles, in two parts, the entire life of Golda Meir, from the reflective vantage point of nearly the end: at the beginning it’s 1977 (Meir died in 1978) and Golda returns to her elementary school in Milwaukee for a visit as a distinguished guest. She tells her story, the children ask her many questions, and as she speaks we see the past unfold: Golda as young girl, starving and afraid as Cossacks threaten to break into her house, then, after immigrating to Milwaukee, as a young woman (played by Judy Davis) in love with the man who will be her husband Morris Meyerson (played by none other than Leonard Nimoy!), the couple on a Kibbutz and then her eventual rise through various roles in the emergent Israeli government. My favorite scene in the Berman version of Golda takes place when an American senator comes to Israel: in one part of Golda’s house a group of Israeli politicians lean into a smoke-filled debate, in the kitchen, meanwhile, Golda has baked a honey cake and talks arms and arming Israel with the American senator for hours. The negotiations nearly complete, Golda clearly having overcome his qualms about arming Israel, the final straw? “Now, give me the recipe for the honeycake!”
This scene finds an echo in the 2023 version when Kissinger (Liev Schreiber) comes to visit Golda and, having already over-eaten when in negotiations with the Russians, is forced by Golda to consume to borscht—it was made, you see, by a survivor, her cook, who cannot abide waste.
I appreciated Mirren’s wonderful acting, as always—she is one of the most stunningly talented actors I have ever seen! And I loved the tense focus of the film. But it could have delved into some of the larger issues at stake in this contested territory.
 Golda Meir: Israel’s Matriarch (Yale University Press, August 15th, 2023), pp. 2-3.
 Golda press release.