Amos Gitai is an architect and the son of an architect (his father was Munio Gitai-Weinraub who had studied design and architecture at The Bauhaus art school in Germany); a fact that comes into play in his films – whether visually or stylistically, as well as thematically (e.g. houses and cities as a motif of stability) and in his choice of locations. Therefore, it hardly comes as a surprise that his debut, feature-length documentary is titled House (1980) and is about an Israeli economics professor who is in the middle of a home refurbishment in West Jerusalem. The house used to belong to a Palestinian doctor of the esteemed Dajani family, however he abandoned it in the 1948 War of Independence. After the State of Israel was established, the property was requisitioned by the Israeli government and legally declared “vacant.”
One of the most powerful scenes in the film features an interview with the current occupant, the economics professor, which then cuts to and from the heartrending conversation with the Palestinian labourer – a victim of the Nakba whose village was occupied and razed in 1948, thereby rendering him and his family refugees. The construction worker sums up his interview with these words, “if 36 Arab armies can’t defeat Israel then what good are our words?” Gitai posits that the Palestinian labourer’s choice of words is in fact far superior to that of the technically educated Israeli homeowner and that it ultimately led to the “deconstruction of the Israeli definition of ‘the other’, thereby resulting in the subsequent censoring of the film.”
Israeli broadcast television may have commissioned and produced the film but the late Tommy Lapid, the IBA’s then President ended up shelving it on account of its content. “It wasn’t as if I had a whole set of political statements which I then implemented in the film,” Gitai explains. “I think House did all the politicising for me which I would say, is how it should happen. As in, come and experience the materials, their contradictions, the characters for yourself, and let all that lead you [through the film]. The vicious backlash the film received and everything that followed as a result forced me to take a decision and choose whether I was going to back down and say that I’m just this architect who’s made some film and that this really isn’t such a big deal, or if I was going to stand by it which meant exposing yourself to abuse and to having people go around saying all sorts about you. I chose the latter which essentially closed the door on architecture for good. In that sense, House was very much a watershed film.”
The film became the first in a trilogy that focuses on the history of the same house in Jerusalem’s Germany Colony neighbourhood – over the years, Gitai has revisited it time and again, reuniting us with its occupants. The house, located on Dor Dor we-Dorshaw St. (the ever-so apt Hebrew title of Isaac Hirsch-Weiss’s five-volume magnus opus ‘each generation and his scholars’ about the history of Jewish law), has since become the emblematic epicentre of the local socio-political conflict.
In the early eighties, Gitai set off on a journey into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip where he documented the Israeli military’s presence in the Occupied Territories before and during the First Lebanon War, whilst meeting with both Israeli settlers and indignant Palestinian protestors. This is one of the most rattling and powerful pieces ever made about Israeli occupation to date. The scene in which a group of soldiers is seen patrolling the streets of Ramallah, on the hunt for the boy who had thrown rocks at them and who they’re now looking to question is but one example of the daily, impossible scenarios which the reality of the occupation has given rise to.
Three IDF soldiers are seen sat in a shaded bus stop, their rifles on their laps. The film crew’s vehicle pulls up in front of them. “Look at all the fun these guys are having,” one soldier observes, referring to the film crew. “They’re nearly done. Sorry, I’m not being rude you guys, but what you’re doing – it’s not cool. Why you gotta be on our tails like that, huh? Can’t you see you’re interrupting our work?”
A deeper, lower, and quieter voice is then heard coming from inside the car: “exactly what is it that I’m interrupting?” The soldier then continues to shout abuse at the camera whilst telling the director he refuses to be in the film. The third soldier then gets up and mutters something inaudible in his ear. The soldiers promptly leave the scene with the car following behind. The head of the troop is heard speaking into his radio: “so there’s this guy here who’s been following us the last half hour, filming us. What do I do?” The soldiers walk on in silence and the car stays on their trail, in equal silence. Meanwhile, the city of Ramallah is gradually revealed. This is Field Diary’s closing shot (1982).
“This scene is possibly one of those rarest instances where film is not only preoccupied with documenting a situation but also crosses over into intervention territory – that is, the camera itself is actively involved in the scene and in that, changes the way it plays out,’ Gittai remarks. “The act of documenting may very well have stopped a violent act that might otherwise have taken place, had the camera not been present. Then, on the other hand the camera ends up chasing the soldiers away from wherever they’re sat down because they don’t want to appear in the film. My incessant presence as the director is felt at all times. The soldiers [ultimately] don’t opt for violence to stop the filming which itself, has accomplished a rare feat – chasing away the military.”
Despite his many travels and wanderings, and though there have been years when he’d lived outside of Israel, Gitai always returned – both personally and as a filmmaker (from Wadi to Laila in Haifa) – to his childhood vistas at Carmel. His hometown of Haifa, complete with its landscapes, pine trees and wadis galore, is acutely present in his body of work. “It’s the place where I was born and I’ve got friendships there that have lasted all these years,” Gitai explains his love for the city. “Haifa is a city that’s raised a great many individualists. Haifa also lets you be on your own; you don’t constantly have to be brushing shoulders with others.”
He then adds how “Haifa doesn’t have that same religious intensity as Jerusalem, nor does it have Tel Aviv’s social intensity. In Haifa, you each get to live under your own tree and next to your own wadi. In its favour, it has quite the substantial Palestinian / Arab presence. I showcase its beauty and human diversity in my films. It is a tolerant, level-headed city and I do hope it retains its humanist values.”
One of the films that Gitai set in Haifa is Yom Yom (‘day-to-day’) – a 1998 political comedy which follows the lives of several locals against the backdrop of Jewish-Arab relations. Gitai gets to show off his ‘funny bone’ here (despite his uber-intellectual, hyper-serious image, Gitai does have a sense of humour), for instance in the scene where Keren Mor plays a local police officer with quite the curious, voyeuristic streak. “The idea for the scene came to me while we were doing some potential location scouting. Haifa Council’s Head of PR referred me to a ‘Traffic Light Monitoring Centre.’ As it turns out, it was this dark, padlocked room, sealed off with the most intricate security codes, and inside was this vast system of monitors that were watching Haifans as they were crossing the city’s main junctions. I decided to set up the characters’ relationships in the film in this mirror-like layout where each one is observing the other whilst ‘Big Sister’ is watching them all – the local policewoman who even gets to witness a bank robbery.”
In 1999, long before we found ourselves inundated with films and television series about ultraorthodox society (from Shtisel to Unorthodox) and the massive global success they’ve enjoyed, Gitai made the stunningly moving Kadosh about Rivka (starring his frequent collaborator, Yael Abecassis) an ultraorthodox Jerusalem woman from the hard-line neighbourhood of Mea Shearim who is forced by the local rabbi to leave her beloved husband, Meir (Yoram Hattab). Even after 10 years of marriage, Rivka still hasn’t managed to get pregnant; by breaking up with her, Meir would then be allowed to marry another woman and become a father. Meanwhile, Rivka’s young sister, Malka (Meital Berdah) is in love with a dashing singer (Sami Huri) who has chosen to excommunicate himself. Unbeknownst to Malka, her family are plotting to marry her off to a yeshiva student (Uri Klauzner) whom she does not love.
Already during the opening scene, Gitai manages to pull us into the depths of ultraorthodox society and in true form, does a fine job of capturing and portraying a range of rituals and ceremonies: Meir is having his daily morning prayer (‘shacharit’) whilst Rivka is still asleep. It goes, “Blessed art thou, Hashem, our G-d and king of the world who opens [the eyes of] the blind; blessed art thou, Hashem, our G-d and king of the world, who did not make me a woman.” In this 10min scene, we follow Meir as he slowly gets dressed, washes his hands, slips on his prayer shawl (‘tallis’), lays tefillin, etc. The final shot tracks his movements until he is about to set off for morning services. He lovingly wakes Rivka up and asks her, “how come your eyes look all moist?” to which Rivka replies, “women also cry in their sleep;” a statement which sums up the plight of womanhood. Women everywhere who had approximately zero knowledge of ultraorthodox society could nonetheless empathise with Rivka and Malka and the film’s bold statement against religion’s sexual and social oppression of women.
This perhaps explains the film’s runaway, international success. Kadosh marked the end of what had been the long-time absence of any Israeli presence at the Cannes Film Festival: after 25 years when not one Israeli film managed to get shortlisted for the official selection, Kadosh suddenly found itself a contender for a Palme d’Or. The film was met with rave reviews and went on to be released in 30 countries. One should also add that Rivka marks Gitai’s then-latest addition to his pool of striking, complex, opinionated, independent, strong, vulnerable and fascinating, though at times also vulnerable and victimised female protagonists he has created and placed at the heart and centre of his films.
Gitai is the master of creating opening scenes that will etch themselves into your memory and Kippur’s phenomenal opening scene (2000) is no exception – the way it captures the atmosphere that day, Yom Kippur, 6 October 1973; the calm before the storm and that collective moment every Israeli who was around at the time will forever recall: the air raid sirens, the speeding cars and mass, emergency conscription of army reserve troops that with one fell swoop, shattered the peace and quiet of the fast on the holiest, most spiritual of days when one is expected to torment one’s own soul, seeking penance and forgiveness.
The film opens with Weinraub (Liron Levo), the main protagonist whom we see walking down a quiet and practically deserted city road in South Tel Aviv. Gitai then cuts to what may very well go down as the finest, most artistic, passionate and erotic sex scene, bar none, in the history of Israeli film: in it, we see Levo having sex with a young woman (Liat Glick) on a white sheet that is gradually stained with paint in all colours which the two lovers are seen smearing all over each other’s bodies with their hands. The colours are all bold at first – red, green, blue, black, and white – but the further they blend together, the more they merge into this one brownish green shade. Levo looks up about midway through the scene and stares directly into the camera that’s watching him, before closing his eyes again. At the end, the camera moves into a close-up of the two, thereby making it impossible to make out any of the details in all this mélange of colour.
And then, the air-raid siren is sounded and we see military jeeps race down the deserted street. Levo starts running. He picks up his old platoon buddy (Tomer Russo) in his old Fiat 124 and together, they head up north to find their unit. The pair’s lives, as well as Gitai’s and all other Israelis’ will never be the same. “The war was very much a defining moment for Israelis as citizens,” Gitai observes. “The age of innocence was well and truly over. Gone were the days when we believed the nation’s leaders exercised sound judgement and thought [in their decisions] and that we would follow them everywhere. Cracks had now appeared in that mindset.”
When the Yom Kippur War broke out, Gitai who at the time was studying architecture at Haifa’s Technion University, was called in for military reserve duty and joined the air force’s rescue unit. During a rescue mission of a Skyhawk pilot who had crashed in Syrian territory, the helicopter Gitai was on was hit by a Syrian SAM (surface to air) missile, killing the co-pilot. Fortunately, the surviving pilot was able to stay airborne for another three minutes, avoiding Syrian enemy fire until finally crashing in Israeli territory. This defining experience would go on to shape Gitai’s personality and he later recreated it without any of the stock heroic, melodramatic tropes in his autobiographical film, Kippur – his finest, most intimate, and wholesome film that made the 2000 Cannes Film Festival’s official selection. That’s right; it took Gitai 27 years to revisit and explore all the memories and lingering scars from that traumatic event.
“After the war, I didn’t want to remember the incident. I wanted to forget. Not even my closest friends knew about it. It was only years later that I was able to sit down and write about what I’d experienced,” Gitai explains. “When I got out alive from a helicopter that had crashed, that gave me strength. Not a lot of people will survive being on a helicopter that’s a taken a direct missile hit, and if by some act of chance, you did live to tell – then you must now live life just as you please, and not give a damn. From thereon out, I decided I was going to do the things that I enjoyed doing and that brought me joy, and that I’d surround myself with people whom I related to. During the war, I was using the Super 8mm camera my mother, Efratia gave me and so it was at that war that I began creating my first ever film images and was also reborn, myself.”
“Most of my films are about people whose own backstories and individual wants are thwarted and hampered down by major, macro historical events,” says Gitai in consideration of the characters he’s created onscreen. And indeed, such are Kedma’s protagonists (2002) – an assortment of Holocaust survivors making their (illegal) way on board the Kedma – a ship bound for British Mandatory Palestine in 1948, shortly before the end of UK rule of the land and the establishing of the State of Israel.
One of the scenes that’s been etched in my memory ever since the Cannes Film Festival premiere is the opening scene. In true Gitai form, the scene features an exceptionally long shot, brilliantly executed by Greek cinematographer, Giorgos Arvanitis who was also Theo Angelopoulos’ collaborator. “The film opens with a close-up on the back of a woman undressing and then goes on to a couple holding each other in silence in the ship’s cargo hold, surrounded by a mass of bunkbeds piled up on top of each other,” Gitai explains. “It’s sort of a double shot, reminiscent of other identical bunkbeds – the concentration camp ones. The camera continues to follow one of the protagonists as he makes his way up from the belly of the ship on deck where he is lost in the swathes of illegal Jewish immigrants who are either sitting, standing, or lying motionless. The characters talk about past events in the present tense – their traumatic Holocaust experiences – whilst inhabiting a space bound for the future.”
But the future awaiting those migrants may not be all that promising either. “They’ve left the inferno that was Europe and the only thing they’re after is some respite from all the horrors they’ve been through but immediately, they are thrust into the never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict. These migrants are sent to fight in battlefields en route to Jerusalem in the War of Independence and find themselves this time no longer the victims but rather, the people occupying another land.”
Gitai has always had a great love of literary texts of all genres and indeed, he has on more than one occasion chosen to adapt – in his own unique way, of course – a range of literature works, from Yaakov Shabtai’s novel, Things to his own film, Tzili that was inspired by a story taken from Aharon Appelfeld’s book, The Skin and the Gown. “The text essentially shapes the Jew’s life since being exiled from their homeland, replacing the territory they’ve been stripped of,” Gitai observes, “Jews had no physical domain, thereby effectively rendering the text, Jewish identity.”
In 2003, Gitai made the Venice Film Festival’s official selection with Alila – a screen adaptation of author Yehoshua Kenaz’s Returning Lost Loves that is set in a Tel Aviv block of flats. “In my films,” Gitai explains, “I opt for a contained location, a single setting where I describe the situations and dynamics that unfold. And that is why I chose to take on Returning Lost Loves – Kenaz’s idea to take a complex that functions as a microcosm of sorts, a metaphor if you will, seemed to me like a cool thing to do (the fighting neighbours scene starring the late Ronit Elkabetz is a fine example of just that – AK). I relocated Kenaz’s setting from north to south Tel Aviv because I’m that much more drawn to that dilapidated, dense area with its lack of intimacy that is both the problem with Tel Aviv, and its beauty. Tel Aviv is a sensual city that is constantly in erasure mode: erasing its architecture and people.”
Promised Land, which in 2004 was up for a Golden Lion award at the Italian city of canals’ festival is part of Gitai’s borders trilogy which also includes Alila and Free Zone. French film critic, Jean-Michel Frodon described the trilogy as “impressive in its ambitiousness, both cinematically and politically.” The film follows the trials and tribulations of a group of young women from the Baltic countries are sold off into prostitution. Men collect them from Cairo airport. They then cross the Sinai Peninsula until arriving at the Nitzana border crossing. Once on Israeli soil, they are then transported to Ramallah.
The sheer suffering of these exploited women already hits us in the powerful opening scene that is set in the desert: two groups are sat around a campfire – Bedouins and blonde women. The former speak Arabic amongst themselves and the latter, Russian. Neither one understands the other. The men are seen to be clearly lusting after the women in their care who are visibly cold and terrified whilst the flames from the fire surround them all. “You can already feel the violence there and then,” says Gitai. “The act of a man dragging a young woman aside so that he can rape her, in a way sets the whole film into motion. The crew suggested I send balloons off into the air that would help illuminate the scene, but I wanted the light to be organic; a faint campfire light and the torches shone on the women whose faces become masks.”
Inspired by Hanoch Levin and travelling circuses, Gitai has always made a practice of surrounding himself with an ensemble cast of actors with whom he’s enjoyed working: the late Juliano Mer-Khamis, Yael Abecassis, Hana Laszlo (Laslo), Liron Levo and Keren Mor. Alongside this local regulars, through the years Gitai has also managed to get quite the impressive list of formidable and highly-respected film actresses to work with him, including Jeanne Moreau, Hanna Schygulla, Anne Parillaud, Juliette Binoche and even Hollywood A-lister, Natalie Portman who gets to show off her acting chops here in Free Zone (2005) as Rebecca, a young American who follows her fiancé to Israel only to then break up with him. She then gets in a car driven by a religious woman (Hana Laszlo, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance) who is making her way to Jordan’s free-trade zone where she plans to cash in her husband’s debt who was injured in a terrorist attack.
“Portman came onboard this project after sending me a bunch of emails and faxes where she expressed her wish to work with me,” Gitai reveals. Of Portman’s performance, the opening sequence is particularly memorable where we spend nine whole minutes on a close-up of her tear-soaked face inside a parked car whilst renowned Israeli singer-songwriter, Chava Alberstein’s moving song, Had Gadya plays in the background. The left half of the frame features Portman’s face whilst the right side is on the car window. The window itself is shut, thereby making it impossible to see what’s going on outside, on account of the raindrops obscuring the view.
“At one point, Portman opens the window but once more, we are unable to glimpse the Israeli landscape because this time, the sun is too intense, blinding us and overexposing the frame,” Gitai explains. “We can then only carry on staring at Portman’s rich, multi-layered acting and occasionally trying to get another peak at the obscured view in the hopes that we be able to decipher the space beyond the window. The camera stays on Portman’s face even when the car starts moving.”
Gitai recalls how this impressive shot wasn’t even in the script but rather, only came into being on the actual day of shooting. “It was the product of circumstances that were not necessarily in the director’s control: it was a rainy day, the atmosphere was pretty grim, the car was parked right there in the Western Wall courtyard and then, the idea for the shot came to me. when I was done filming it, I knew that I simply had to open the film with it. Because I’m originally an architect, I like to build a door or threshold, if you will, in my films’ opening sequence and create this moment when the audiences cross over that threshold from the gridlocked roads and the movie theatre into the world of the film. There’s also an element of an unwritten agreement about it. Meaning, the director is telling the viewer, ‘heads up; you’re about to enter this kind of film and I’m letting you know this up front so that things between us are clear, so don’t you come running to me afterwards saying how you didn’t know. ‘”
Ben Gitai, Amos Gitai’s son was in the army during the summer 2005, Israeli Disengagement from the Gaza Strip. And in fact, he was the one who went to his father and suggested he make a film about this dramatic, historic chapter. “After Ben suggested that there might be a film in the Disengagement, I went over to the Strip to see and experience the whole thing for myself, which I would later use as the canvas for my story,” Gitai recounts.
The plot of Disengagement follows a mother (Juliette Binoche) who has come to Israel in search of her daughter (Dana Ivgy) during the days of the settlements’ removal. In Disengagement, the personal and national drama blend together and one of the scenes that capture this very mix is set in a nursery. Binoche arrives at the nursery at the end of her journey where she is set to meet her daughter who was raised in a settlement. It is an exceptionally long one-shot personifying both the pull and rejection between abandoned child and abandoning mother. The cinematographer, Christian Berger and I both wondered how we might create the two actresses’ choreography in front of each other. It was an intricate shot, not only in the technological and cinematographic sense.”
The abovementioned scene also made quite the impression on US Variety magazine’s Ronnie Scheib: “Gitai’s sublime choreography during the mother – daughter reunion scene, whilst settlers are being forcibly removed is nothing short of brilliant. As a whole, the film succeeds in striking an extraordinary balance between the personal and political.”
On 4 November 1995 Gitai was staying in Haifa where he was caring for his mother, Efratia after she’d been involved in a car accident. That same evening, he was listening to a film programme on the radio when it was suddenly interrupted with breaking news reporting on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Rabin’s murder left Gitai shaken and rattled to his core. He realised that this was in fact a mega event of tremendous ramifications after which Israel would never be the same. It was then that it dawned on Gitai that any sense of national optimism that may have been brought on by the Oslo Accords or for that matter, the very prospect of peace has just gone out the window.
Gitai went to Jerusalem with his wife, Rivka, his daughter Keren and son, Ben for the opportunity to walk past Rabin’s coffin and pay his last respects. Since then, he has more than once returned to that watershed moment: in a documentary, stage play, and fiction film – Rabin, the Last Day which in 2015 made the Venice Film Festival’s official selection. “I made this film not just as a director but also, as an Israeli citizen who loves this country and can see the path it’s been going down since this murder,” he says. Rabin, the Last Day follows the incitement campaign directed against Rabin, the main players, and all the events that culminated with the murder. “The writing for Rabin’s murder was on the wall,” Gitai argues. “They went and killed a man of great integrity.”
The film is made up of archival footage, interviews, and staged scenes – one of which is particularly surprising: an insomniac psychologist (played by Dalia Shimko) takes on diagnosing Rabin’s personality. “In the course of researching the film, we came across this interview with Bar Ilan University’s clinical psychologist, Dr. Netta Kohn Dor-Shav; the same university where murderer Igal Amir was studying, just a month before the assassination: in it, she diagnoses Rabin as a man suffering from an acute personality disorder and even goes as far as to label him a schizoid. Among other things, she offers a list of common schizoid traits including a predisposition to distorting reality and megalomania.
“The film reflects the atmosphere that gave rise to Igal Amir – Rabbis who had legitimised extrajudicial killings in the name of Jewish law, targeting Rabin specifically with vilifying and also murderous, religious decrees (‘Din Rodef’ and ‘Din Moser’), politicians and far right activists who had both created and led a highly-coordinated and sophisticated hate campaign against him, settlers for whom the peace accords were an assault and act of treason against the motherland, secret service officers who either knew or were supposed to know what was about to happen, and so on. Igal Amir was only the gun in an otherwise extremely elaborate campaign designed to take down an elected government and sitting Prime Minister.”