Kedma – and the ship sailed on

Amos Gitai
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“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.”

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