Interview With A Creator Of The Documentary Code Name: Ayalon

                                                                  Code Name: Ayalon

              Interview with Editor, Associate Producer and Composer Rodney Whittenberg

When we hear about historical events, we are not always aware of the back story that led up to the unfolding. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. What will now be portrayed on screen is the courage of 45 teens who led a covert mission to help win the War of Independence. A new documentary called  Code Name Ayalon was created by Producer Laurel Fairworth, veteran filmmaker Michael Lopatin and Editor, Associate Producer and Composer Rodney Whittenberg. The film aired on Philadelphia PBS station WHYY on Thursday, October 5, 2023, with other PBS stations broadcasting it after that.

It is particularly timely with the escalating war in Israel and Gaza.

When I watched the trailer, I found myself wondering if I would have the internal fortitude to do what these young people did out of a commitment to the common good, knowing what was on the line if they agreed or refused to take part in this daring chapter of the birth of Israel as a nation.

To learn more about the creation of the film, I had the opportunity to speak with Rodney Whittenberg. 

Can you offer a synopsis of the film?

The film is about an underground bullet factory in Israel during the British occupation of Palestine. The Jewish people were not permitted to have bullets but were permitted to have guns.  Having bullets was punishable by death. Guns without bullets were useless.  As colonialism would have it, the British needed oil to keep warm during the winter. As we got into WW II, oil was needed to fight the war. The region was a source of oil, Iraq was the supplier, the Suez Canal was the mode of access. The British Mandate was in 1917. The Jews were promised a home in Palestine and the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson were on board with it. Not so, the surrounding Arab countries.

What drew you to wanting to be involved with the telling of this historical event?

I am a big history buff and I love untold stories and I was brought in as the composer and sound designer. I love working with Michael Lopatin who recently retired. He has been amazingly supportive. I would work on anything he was involved with. One of my passions is going into someone else’s world and hanging out there for a while and coming back, having been changed by that experience. Palestine in 1947 is about as far away from sitting in my home and studio in Plymouth Meeting, PA in 2017. I found it fascinating.  Surprisingly, I have a history of working on a number of narrative films and documentary films with a Jewish theme. My name might have you think that I am German and or Jewish, but I am African American and was raised Catholic and now I’m a practicing Universal Unitarian.

Did you personally interview any of the surviving teens (now elders) who turned the tide of the Israeli War of Independence?

I was part of the post-production. Michael Lopatin and Laurel Fairworth did the pre- and production work. I didn’t conduct any of the interviews. I came on board as they were in the editing stages. Two of the interviewees were Yhudit and Shlomo who were kids in their late teens or early 20s when they were approached for this mission. They were not allowed to know what the mission was until they were committed to it. What must that have been like? You are being asked to do something that is punishable by death if you are caught, and you are contributing to the birth of a new country. Their families were coming out of the Holocaust, so they knew what this meant. It was reminiscent of the struggle of African Americans to come out of slavery. It is when you feel that your safety and independence were threatened, and you decided to take a stand. That was pretty moving.

What moved you most about their stories?

 As the composer, coeditor, sound designer, and associate producer I was most moved by the willingness of these young kids to take on a mission without knowing what they were going to do. They showed immense courage.

As a filmmaker, do you have a vision upfront of what the outcome will be, or do you allow the story to unfold on screen as it chooses? 

When I am directing, yes, but in this case that was not my call because I was brought on as a composer. In scoring the film, there were conversations I had with Laurel and Michael about the tone and emotional impact. Years ago, I started composing music for documentaries for A & E Biography. The music is there to keep the motor running and transform something that can be heavy or weighty, so an hour-long documentary doesn’t feel like three days. With this film, I came up with six to 10 little themes. I did variations on them depending on the emotional part of the story. Like the Beatles were influenced by the Beach Boys, I fell in love with the score to Chernobyl which is so evocative. The composer is Hildur Guðnadóttir. I had never done an all-electronic sounding score before. I took on some of those musical ideas and combined it with traditional orchestral sounds. I did a spotting session as I sat with Michael and Laurel and asked if they wanted music at certain points.  

Since the people involved in what was called The Ayalon Institute were able to work a seeming miracle, by not only building what, to all appearances, was an ordinary Kibbutz and the munitions factory beneath it, was it attributed it to their spiritual beliefs?   

It is a hard thing that people who gain power over time forget is that when you have nothing to lose, you do what needs to be done and it is hard to beat. It is like David and Goliath. These young kids had everything to gain and nothing to lose. The smarts and cunning it took was amazing. They succeeded because they had to. There was a deep commitment to each other, and they didn’t even talk about it until 20 to 30 years after the war. They were told not to talk about it, so they didn’t. I didn’t see all of the interview footage, but I didn’t sense that there was a deep spiritual component. 

What message would you like it to deliver?

I think Deborah Lipstadt who is one of the interview subjects says it best, that it is a story of the underdog finding a way to survive. She was ”confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 30, 2022, as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, with the rank of Ambassador. As Special Envoy, she leads efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy to counter antisemitism throughout the world.”

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