“An American Hippie In Israel”: “Man, I Feel Really Turned On!”

By on May 16, 2015

We aren’t completely sure why the 1972 counterculture film An American Hippie In Israel — which airs tonight on the TCM channel, 11:30pm PST/2:30am EST on 5/16 — failed to get wider distribution when it was originally released, but, as you can see from this slightly NSFW trailer (for language and bare-chestiness), this ultimately very watchable/unwatchable film certainly had a lot of selling points, to wit: murderous machine gun-toting mimes with zombie makeup, free-lovin’ hippies, lots of gratuitous nudity and violence, bloodthirsty sharks, and robot people who have tape recorders for heads.

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An American Hippie In Israel –also known as Ha-Trempist, translated into English variously as The Hitchhiker, and the movie is also known as The Hitchhiker: A Hippie’s Guide To Israel — stars an Israeli actor named Asher Tzarfati as an dope-smoking ex-Vietnam vet named “Mike,” a bearded native New Yorker who is hitchhiking whilst clad in an awesome handmade rabbit fur vest and dirty jeans. He’s just bumming his way around the world, as people used to do back then (so we hear) when he gets a ride from a nice lady, an actress named Elizabeth, and they have a simple and meaningful connection that binds them together — love, not war, naturally — but first all she simply wants to know what to the rest of us might seem pretty obvious:

“Are you a hippie?”

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It’s a simple enough question, bt Mike seems to pause a bit before answering, “Well, you might say so… right on!,” and that gave us a bit of a pause. Would a true hippie truly not know if they were one or not? Maybe Mike didn’t self-identify as a hippie. All he knows is, he’s not what he was, a mindless killing machine trained to kill at the push of the button. (The cast also features Lily Avidan as Elizabeth, Shmuel Wolf as Komo, and Tzila Karney as Françoise.)

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The movie seems to be divided into three separate segments, the first of which is what we might have to call the hippie segment, coming complete as it does with free love and hip­pie kids groov­ing at a spon­ta­neous be-in. There’s lots of lovemaking and flashes of bare-chestiness, and talk amongst them about drop­ping out of soci­ety to put together their own culture, too. The sec­ond segment is more like a road movie, with a lit­tle soupçon of film-school sur­re­al­ism via a dream sequence, which was probably timed to hit around the same time your acid trip would kick in if you’d put the tab on your tongue during the opening credits (we think). The final segment of the film is like a par­tic­u­larly crazy one-act play, where Mike dishes out a oper­atic alle­gory about the death of the peace-and-love generation. Heady stuff.

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Along the way we’re taking a kind of biblical Holy Land pilgrimage from Tel Aviv (we think) to the port of Eilat on the Red Sea, and then, finally, we end up on this desert island oasis, Pharaoh’s Island, but the rock-covered utopia turns out to be not too utopian, and have we mentioned yet it’s surrounded by waters infested with sharks? They become savages — the hippies, not the sharks, although they’re pretty savage too, we guess — in kind of an isolated Lord Of The Flies setting, but all of the words you’re reading here aren’t really explaining best what you simply must see for yourselves. It’s the kind of film that partitions its viewing audience into the tried-and-true loved it/hated it categories, although we think it’s probably possible to straddle the line and chose both with this movie.

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An American Hippie In Israel was written, produced and directed by one-shot wonder Amos Sefer, a former electrician who studied film and acting in London. He managed to convince several investors (one of them, the Israeli heir to a New Jersey pillow factory), to back this idea of his, his dream film project, which he thought might have the same counter-cultural appeal (and box office success) that movies like The Trip, Head, Easy Rider, El Topo and Zabriskie Point had enjoyed, to varying degrees of success, and he even shot the film in English (although, strangely, it looks dubbed). However, the film’s U.S. distributor was not too impressed and, after a few screenings, shelved the film back in ’72.

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An American Hippie In Israel was thought lost for many years — or maybe someone was hiding the film cans? — but then it was, decades later, circa 2007 or so, rediscovered by film editor/distributor Bob Murawski of Grindhouse Releasing, who put up a trailer on Youtube that became an internet sensations. Then, a rabid fan named Yaniv Edelstein, tracked down a copy of the film and revived it for the midnight movie circuit, screening it in his home, in Tel Aviv, and finally, before packed audiences at the Cinematheque on the first Friday of every month, where it became so popular that audiences began yelling back to the screen, screaming out some of the film’s ham-fisted dialogue in the same way that audiences in the 70s used to do the same at crowded midnight movie screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

An American Hippie In Israel was released for the first time on Blu-ray and DVD 2013, and late last year TCM aired it (apparently uncut) as part of their “Underground” programming.

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Sefer, by the way, left Israel for the U.S. shortly after making the movie, anticipating that he’d have a busy career, lensing more counterculture anti-war scripts he’d written. In Israel, Sefer was a relative newcomer on a growing film scene which included people like Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who chose to focus on low-budget action and would eventually go on to found The Cannon Group in 1979, but success eluded Sefer, and he never directed another film. He died in 2007, never having seen his one and only feature film being given the attention he certainly thought it deserved.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.