We first meet Mira moments before her death. She is one of the main characters of the new Israeli Netflix movie “Image of Victory,” which retells the story of the 1948 battle of Nitzanim — one of the battles Israel bitterly lost in the war of independence. Her face is bloodied and sand-dappled, appearing through the lens of an Egyptian camera. Yet she is mesmerizing: At first, her expression is full of fury, and then she gives a haunting, tearful smile.
Like many characters in the movie, Mira is based on a real person, radio operator Mira Ben-Ari, who was killed by Egyptian soldiers on June 7, 1948, moments after she stunned the Arab combatants by shooting an Egyptian officer. The mother of one was just 22.
Actress Joy Rieger, who won the best actress in a foreign film award at the Tribeca Film Festival for her performance in the 2018 movie “Virgins” opposite Israeli heartthrob Michael Aloni, plays Mira. You may also know her as Dafna from the excellent 2020 show “Valley of Tears.” This movie is her third collaboration with renowned Israeli director Avi Nesher, known for his onscreen explorations of Israeli history and for featuring fierce and captivating female characters — like in his celebrated 2004 “Left at the End of the World.”
The movie, which premiered in Israel in 2021 and garnered 15 Israeli academy award nominations, including one for Rieger, is one of the highest-budget Israeli productions. Nesher and his team recreated an entire kibbutz in the south of Israel, not far from Beer Sheva — the original kibbutz of Nitzanim was destroyed during the war and reestablished some kilometers away. The movie’s shoot became its own kind of kibbutz: The team had to stay on set because of Covid restrictions.
“Image of Victory” tells the story of both fronts of the battle. Amir Khoury is dashing as Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a close confidant of Nasser’s who covered the Israeli-Arab War and who weaves the Egyptian side of the film’s narrative. He is tasked by the king to cover the war and make Egyptian soldiers look fierce and triumphant — so many moments of humanity that he captures with his intrepid cameramen get left on the cutting room floor.
Then, there’s the kibbutz of Nitzanim and the cast of characters there. The movie masterfully captures the fabric of an Israeli kibbutz — the mix of languages and accents (German, Russian, Spanish) and, despite that, the united front. There’s also a cast of soldiers tasked with protecting the kibbutz, who are macho but easily reined in by a confident and loudmouthed Russian immigrant.
Yet it’s Mira’s presence that makes for the film’s most compelling moments. Just like her idol Marlene Dietrich, she marches to the beat of her own drum. She’s beautiful, confident and free; she frolics with her two-year-old in the grounds of the kibbutz, she swims in the ocean in her underwear, she flirts with the local army commander, she tries to matchmake between fellow kibbutzniks. She’s also accomplished and confident as the radio operator of the kibbutz, refusing to give her equipment to the stationed soldiers.
The real story of Mira Ben-Ari is just as amazing as the fictionalization, her character just as vibrant and captivating in old photos as she is onscreen. Ben-Ari was born in Berlin of 1926 and immigrated to Israel with her parents in 1933. At home, her family spoke German and her house was full of imported furniture — things were punctual, controlled and precise. But outside, Mira was Israeli: sporty, free, inspired by Zionist ideals.
“Mira was mature, had a strong personality, with beautiful shoes and long curly hair, and she didn’t care about what anyone said,” recalled one acquaintance.
She was part of what some glibly called “the movement for the improvement of the sea,” a group that hung out by the seaside in their leisure time. In the movie, we see her urge other kibbutzniks and soldiers to join her for a dip. As one of the soldiers rolls back their sleeves, he reveals the tattoo of a serial number from Auschwitz. The two float in the water together. “This is paradise,” they tell each other in German — or at least it would be, if there weren’t the constant threat of death.
It was a paradise that Ben-Ari wanted to leave for her son, Danny. She married her husband, Palmachnik Elyakim Ben-Ari, played in the movie by an uncannily similar and very excellent Elisha Dayan, and had Danny with him. The two were founding members of Nitzanim. She trained as a radio operator and worked to communicate with Aliyah Bet ships.
As the conflict unravelled at Nitzanim and Arab forces closed in, she communicated with her parents: “They attack us every day,” she wrote in letters. “At first I was ashamed to wear a gun.” But she then recounted that even her son, Danny, walked around with a toy gun — at least he didn’t pretend to have a belt of grenades like his father. “The kids spent all day and nights at the shelter. I saw Danny only in the evening,” she wrote in another letter. Despite the difficult conditions, Ben-Ari was convinced to stay, even as the women and children were evacuated from the kibbutz in what was called “operation baby” — “the fighters needed their radio operator,” she told her parents.
“It was really hard when they evacuated the kids, I felt great pain,” she confessed, but she wrote that she had to focus “on doing her comms until they were all evacuated.” She asked a fellow kibbutznik to tell her son to remember her.
Her final radio transmissions reflected the dire situations in the kibbutz, recounting that the Egyptians were on the grounds of the kibbutz and that there seemed to be no hope left. “I am destroying the radio and going out to fight,” she relayed in her final radio communication.
Her final letter, though, was to her husband. This is its full text:
“I will just write a few words and you will surely understand that I can not write. It’s just a bit hard. More than a bit. I have never felt this way, but I will overcome. In our time, we have to overcome everything. Maybe for our people’s ability to suffer and not give up, because our persistence to hold on despite the fact that we are few, after all we will get what we deserve after two thousand years. There is no harder farewell than that of a mother from her child, but I am parting from my child so that he can grow in a safe place, so that he can be a free person in his country. Send him all my love when you see him. Send my father and mother a lot of kisses and tell them I am sorry I didn’t write, but I truly could not!”
As Egyptian forces defeated the fighting forces, the commander of Nitzanim, Avraham Schwarzstein, decided to send out a soldier with a white undershirt to announce their surrender and to ask to negotiate terms, but he was shot. Schwarzstein then took the white undershirt and, with Ben-Ari, walked towards Egyptian officers, but they shot him, refusing to parley. Ben-Ari shot one of the officers and the forces opened fire at her, killing her.
Among those killed in the battle of Nitzanim were immigrants from Uruguay and Holocaust survivors who were the last living members of their families. They fought valiantly, and yet, at first, were denounced for their surrender by the likes of Abba Kovner (played in the movie by an also uncanny Yonatan Barak), who called it an act of cowardice. (Kovner, a former partisan and commander, was the one who allegedly told Jews in Vilnius not to go like sheep to the slaughter.) An investigation later cleared the kibbutz of any wrongdoing.
Over 100 individuals were captured at the Battle of Nitzanim and released after the war. Ben-Ari, along with the other who died in battle, were buried at the cemetery on the grounds of the original kibbutz. Her death is commemorated by a memorial statue at the place where her final act of bravery occurred. After her death, her son Danny named one of his three daughters after her.
“We all remember her, her legacy and the heroism she left behind,” he told Ynet. “As she wrote, ‘I am willing to die with a weapon in my hand.’”
“Image of Victory” is a fascinating and complex portrait of war, of what each side does to appear victorious or to mitigate defeat. It’s also about the irreplaceable price of the lives of those gone too soon and the indelible marks they leave on the living.