For more than three decades, intrepid Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitaï has devoted himself to surveying the disunities and corrosive antagonisms that perennially plague his homeland and, by extension, perpetuate Arab-Israeli conflict throughout the Middle East. At the same time, Gitaï has explored (and radically questioned) the foundational myths – religious and political, archaic and modern – that sustain contemporary Jewish identity in both its individual humanist and official state forms. Though Gitaï – who’s now regarded, at age 56, as Israel’s pre-eminent writer-director – is probably best known for Kadosh (1999), a mournful drama deeply attuned to the mysterious rhythms of love and desire, yet unflinchingly critical of ultra-Orthodox attitudes toward women, and Kippur (2000), his harrowing autobiographical war film, he has worked at a hectic pace since the early 1980s, producing a remarkably uncompromised, wide-ranging body of work that encompasses nearly 50 documentaries and narrative features.
Though there has yet to appear a single-author critical study of Gitaï in English (Paul Willemen’s essay collection, The Films of Amos Gitaï: A Montage, is, in fact, the only widely available Anglophone book to gather scholarly writings on the director), events of the past year have brought renewed interest in his œuvre. The first-ever DVD release of several important early political documentaries on Facets Video, special screenings of News from Home/News from House (2006) – the recently completed third chapter of his House trilogy – two major retrospectives in the U.S. and Europe, and the North American theatrical release of Free Zone (2005) last spring have also helped raise Gitaï’s international profile. Finally, in March, the German publisher Walther Konig will release a 500-page volume of correspondence, essays and interviews, entitled News from Home.
Born in Haifa, 1950, and trained as an architect like his German-Jewish father, Munio Weinraub-Gitaï (a student of Kandinsky who was in the vanguard of the Bauhaus movement), Gitaï began making short, super-8 documentaries in the 1970s. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Gitaï was drafted into an army rescue unit and experienced a near-mystical epiphany after his helicopter was shot down by Syrian munitions over the Golan Heights, killing many on-board. The incident, which occurred on his birthday, was transformative and later provided the existential scenario for Kippur. During this period, Gitaï made his first shorts for Israeli television, but eventually returned to his architecture studies, completing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, where he lived from 1976 to 1979. While there, he took classes with philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend and Frankfurt School theorist Leo Lowenthal, taught introductory filmmaking courses and held a part-time job at the Pacific Film Archive.
After his initial forays into political documentary, Bayit (The House, 1980) and Yoman Sadeh (Field Diary, 1982), were deemed too inflammatory to air on Israeli television in the conservative early-’80s (presumably for giving voice to Palestinian dissent), Gitaï departed for France, where he lived in exile for more than a decade. There, he formed Agav Films and produced his first narrative feature, Esther (1986), and two other imaginative tales concerned with diaspora themes, Berlin-Yerushalaim (Berlin-Jerusalem, 1989) and Golem, l’esprit de l’exil (Golem: The Spirit of Exile, 1992). He also developed a friendship with director Samuel Fuller, casting him in the latter feature as well as a play based on the Roman siege of Massada, Metamorphosis of a Melody, staged and filmed in Gibellina, Sicily (Gibellina, Metamorphosis of a Melody, 1992). (Fuller, who later encouraged Gitaï to make Kippur on the model of his own personal war film, The Big Red One (1980), wrote in his autobiography that Gitaï was “a talented storyteller” with whom he “shared a passion for unearthing historical events to get a better perspective on our own times”.) But Gitaï’s filmmaking also evolved alongside the tumult of Israeli politics and the First Intifada, which began in 1987. When he returned to Israel, in 1995, it was to engage in a post-mortem, investigatory documentary project, Zirat Ha’Rezach (The Arena of Murder, 1996). Following a lengthy interview with the widow of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Gitaï roams Gaza by night in his car, musing about the circumstances surrounding Rabin’s assassination and searching for answers in every corner of the country, like a peripatetic insomniac. It also epitomizes, in its methodology and personal accents, a particularly fervent period of travelogue-style documentaries that he initiated two years earlier with The Neo-Fascist Trilogy: 1. In the Valley of the Wupper (1994).
Over the past decade, Gitaï has focused more and more on feature work, observing the vicissitudes of day-to-day life in contemporary urban communities with the City Trilogy (Zihren Devarim, 1995; Yom Yom, 1998; Kadosh); revisiting the embattled, violent early days of Israel’s founding moment (Kedma, 2002); re-imagining his own cathartic past (Kippur); and examining the question of statehood and utopia (Eden, 2001), a theme that he first explored in 1981’s Wadi, a docu-portrait about a remote community of social outcasts. With most of these films, Gitaï has drawn on a small pool of technicians and collaborators that, in recent years, has included screenwriter Marie-José Sanselme; producer Laurent Truchot; cinematographers Henri Alekan, Renato Berta, and Nurith Aviv; production designer Miguel Markin; and sound editors Alex Claude and François Fayard. Actors like Yaël Abecassis, Yoram Hattab, Uri Ran-Klauzner, Yussuf Abu-Warda and Hanna Lazslo also appear frequently in his feature dramas, completing the impression of a tight-knit creative community devoted to the director’s progressive vision.
Michael Atkinson once cheekily dubbed Gitaï “Israel’s one-man New Wave”, which certainly gets at Gitaï’s unique position as a former exile with imported, avant-garde sensibilities. But Gitaï’s perspective is unique among national cinemas – and especially in Israel, where he is a controversial figure – for another reason: he combines a moral-æsthetic desire to criticize abuses of state power, to be a witness for what was long an invisible, voiceless population (the Palestinians), while expressing an abiding interest in the rich cultural heritage of fellow Jews, whose own world existence has been marked by abhorrent suffering and displacement. His cinema, therefore, consists of – or rather, insists upon – this paradoxical double gesture.
For Gitaï, the corrupter of film art and, by extension, political-humanitarian progress, is not necessarily a single entity (like the state) or scheme (say, identitarian politics): it is the false authority and one-dimensionality of clichés, propaganda and all forms of indoctrination, whether Zionist or anti-Semitic, Orthodox or Muslim, media-borne or militant-extremist, that prohibit a true congress of aims. For that reason, he is interested in engineering different ways of seeing; the creation, ultimately, of a non-hegemonic image, an assemblage that does not engage or reproduce the polemics of the Middle East under their own ossified codes, but abolishes them altogether, through duration (of the shot) and critique (in the form of a multiplicity of voices). Form and film style, then, are inherently political for Gitaï, as he has said. In his work, the visual rhythms of the long take and the ever-wandering and watchful kino-eye oppose the chopped-up, flash-cut beats and destructive quick takes of the evening news. Also, Gitaï prefers disjunctive, rather than illustrative uses of sound; his documentaries tend to avoid didacticism through a determined lack of expository voiceover. If his features have a quality of narrative murkiness at times, it’s because Gitaï’s emphasis on themes (myth, memory, the experience of exile) and his characters’ metaphorical rootedness in history or in a particular context can predominate, or lapse into excess (Kedma’s theatricalised orators, for example). Perhaps it is no accident that his most celebrated feature, Kadosh, is also, in terms of film-storytelling technique, one of his most conventional.
One can develop an appreciation for the writer-director’s exploratory instincts and chronic allergy to dogmatic intransigence by glimpsing the nonfiction titles included in the Facets boxed set, Amos Gitaï: Territories. Initially, it was through roving-eye journalistic documentaries that Gitaï found his footing and his voice, challenging the prevailing views of reality by travelling around to view for himself what couldn’t be seen on television or acknowledged by public officials. The House (1980), his first major effort, viewed the history of the region through the metonymic icon of a domicile in West Jerusalem, and arrived at a crucial time: Jewish settlements were rapidly expanding in the Occupied Territories, stirring resentment anew. The bitter but resigned attitudes of the Palestinian stone masons labouring to erect a Jewish settler’s villa on the remains of the old habitation, abandoned by a prominent Arab family in 1948 (“If six Arab armies can’t defeat Israel, what can our words do?” says one), and the guarded optimism of the new Jewish owners provide a stark contrast that reflects (what was then) the general mood in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. In Field Diary, filmed as Menachem Begin was leading Israel to war in Lebanon, Gitaï wheeled around the Occupied Territories with a ragtag film crew, interviewing Israeli Defence Forces patrols, people on the street, and most poignantly, the mayor of the West Bank town of Nablus, who lost his legs in a bomb attack by militants unhappy with his willingness to negotiate for peace.
Gitaï, who establishes a strong on-camera presence in all his documentaries, is at his most impatient, even combative, in this film: Undaunted by the tense, intimidating presence of IDF soldiers, many of whom are unhappy about being filmed and jittery because of the ongoing hostilities in southern Lebanon, Gitaï asks candid questions and has the gall to wait around for an answer – even following the young conscripts in his car when he doesn’t get one. Early in Field Diary, when a hostile Israeli guard stationed in front of the Nablus mayor’s house manhandles camera operator Nurith Aviv, and tries to push her equipment to the ground, Gitaï boldly intervenes, asserting his right to observe and record. The sequence is potent and rattling, a testament to how quickly tempers flare in a time of war, yet resolute as a moment of witness. Serge Toubiana, in his comprehensive, thoughtful film-by-film analysis, Exils et territoires, is right to characterize Gitaï’s modus operandi in these works as that of a surveilleur, or one who “keeps watch”.
Gitaï may occasionally use his camera as an instrument of agitation and provocation, but he has always been more interested in dialogue and discourse than the iron certainties of radical politics – or knee-jerk positions of any kind. In fact, he has returned to the same subject matter repeatedly, as circumstances change, with fresh eyes and ears and an architect’s sense of how history accumulates, how it builds in a place. Thus, A House in Jersualem (1998) and the recently completed News from Home are vivid, eye-opening follow-ups to the still-resonant social archaeology of House. In another early film, Wadi, Gitaï interviewed the residents of a non-traditional, self-organized Jewish-Arab community on the outskirts of Haifa whose peaceful intermingling appeared to open a space for utopian thinking. The participants in this series of conversations merited his renewed scrutiny in Wadi: 1981-1991 (aka Wadi: Ten Years After, 1991) and Wadi: Grand Canyon (2001), and in some ways provide a line of continuity leading across many borders, real and imaginary, cultural and artistic, to the 2005 fiction feature Free Zone.
The Road to Peace, or How I Got Into an Argument
The unapologetically lachrymose, seven-minute shot that opens Free Zone, Gitaï’s most recent attempt to allegorise the bloody dynamics of the Middle East conflict, is emblematic of the director’s long-take visual style. The first image we see, in medium-tight close-up, is of a young woman, Rebecca (Natalie Portman), seated in the back seat of a parked car, weeping uncontrollably as rain spatters the passenger window next to her cheek. As the minutes pass, her agonized, tear-stained face repeatedly contorts and relaxes, registering the waves of grief passing through her with varying degrees of intensity.
Though this prodigious sobbing episode is, at a glance, a virtuosic acting feat seemingly devoid of context – we have no idea who this woman is, what has so upset her, or where she might be arriving from or headed to – Gitaï provides two semantic clues that immediately orient us to the thematic concerns of the film. The first is Israeli folk-pop star Chava Alberstein’s version of “Had Gadia”, a traditional Passover hymn the songwriter updated with controversial verses that allude to the region’s escalating cycle of violence, and which is jarringly prominent in the soundtrack. Banned by government radio upon its release in 1989, the track’s insistent, lilting rhythm and urgent lyrics recount how a father buys a kid lamb for two pennies; the lamb is eaten by a cat, which is choked by a dog, who’s beaten with a stick and so forth, completing a chain of “natural” brutality that has the singer wondering, “When will this madness end?”
Clearly, Gitaï does not wish us to miss the metaphorical significance of this sonographic element, since he provides translations for the incantatory Yiddish vocals. But he adds an additional flourish to this bold gambit: as the song builds to an emotional crescendo, Rebecca rolls down the car window, giving us a brief glimpse of her whereabouts: Jerusalem. And in the distance, not far away, the Wailing Wall can be seen. With these cues, one optic and one musical, Gitaï re-territorialises the solitary personal grief of an anonymous woman whose mourning would otherwise be indecipherable, or literally “out of place”. In fact, the emotionally charged filmic space Rebecca inhabits, delimited both by actual physical restraints (the automobile) and the camera frame (her face in close-up), parallels the turbulent, circumscribed geography of Israel-Palestine. Here, prior to any further elaboration of her predicament (which turns out to be a broken heart, an inversion common in the director’s films), Gitaï establishes an atmosphere (sombre, elegiac, rueful) that functions like an affective pre-history to the central trope of his narrative: the frustrating, seemingly interminable problem of how to resolve irreconcilable differences in the Middle East. Considering that Free Zone is a trans-border road movie featuring three bickering female characters – a half-Jewish American, a Palestinian Arab and an Israeli – who are trapped together in the narrow confines of a car for most of their journey, it is not mere fancy to view it in that aspect.
Free Zone is the second instalment of a projected trilogy that, according to Gitaï, concerns hybrid identities and the fragmentation of national, ethnic or inner coherence – the monolithic kind, by which people conduct lives and wars. (The first entry, 2004’s Promised Land, dealt with the illegal trafficking of prostitutes to Israel from Eastern Europe.) It is also, like his 2002 feature Alila, a tragicomic romp, with the tone slipping between light and grave as Gitaï’s trio of characters squabble their way across the Trans-Jordan valley after meeting at the real-world Free Zone – a sprawling, tax-free marketplace in eastern Jordan where Jews and Arabs from neighbouring countries like Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia hawk used cars. The story begins as heartbroken Rebecca, an American woman in Jerusalem who has just left her fiancé, insists on hitching a ride with an off-duty taxi driver, Hanna (Hana Laszlo), who is about to make a long journey to collect a $30,000 debt owed to her husband, Moshe (Uri Klauzner). The reason, explained in an extended flashback, is that Moshe, a down-and-out agriculturist turned armoured-car dealer, has been seriously injured in a powerful, perhaps terrorist, blast.
As the two women meander through the Jordanian countryside recounting their recent troubles, Gitaï superimposes images of the present – the road, the barren countryside, the (often mobile) view from inside of the car – with episodes of the recent past (Moshe and Hanna’s ordeal; Rebecca’s disturbing, crestfallen interlude with her boyfriend and his haughty, Spanish-born mother). When they finally reach the Free Zone, they do not find Moshe’s mysterious business partner, known to everyone as “the American”, but his Palestinian wife, Leila (Hiam Abbass). When it becomes apparent that Leila does not have the money, the impatient haggler in Hanna cuts straight to the chase and demands that Leila take them to her husband. As each character embodies a general type, their journey and the resulting revelations are laden with symbolism and irony, reflecting to what extent the personal is always political for Gitaï – ineluctably so.
A student in his Berkeley days of Godardian-Brechtian æsthetics and Conceptual Art, dialectical materialism and Third World economics, Gitaï’s cinematic practice is grounded in theory, to be sure, not to mention a broader geopolitics of eyewitness – Ananas (Pineapple, 1984) and Bangkok-Bahrain (1984), for instance, addressed the dehumanising, repressive structures of global capitalism in the Pacific Rim. Yet, in a volatile region where ethnic and religious tensions have leached into every level of society, and are reflected in the psychology and unique historical situation of every inhabitant, he has strived to present the human face of that antagonistic dynamic whenever possible. And that is exactly how Free Zone, however it may be judged within the broader context of Gitaï’s work, should be situated.
I had a chance to sit down with the indefatigable Gitaï during his December 2005 retrospective, “Hard Questions: The Films of Amos Gitaï”, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Perhaps befitting a film artist whose engaged cinema so often features road travel and border crossings, and scenarios that attest to the porous boundaries of identity and nationhood, Gitaï had lost his passport – apparently at a movie theatre. Our nearly two-hour conversation, interrupted on occasion by phone calls from his assistant, touched on the making of Free Zone, as well as Gitaï’s views on the relationship between his film æsthetics and the politics of peace in the Middle East. Although much has happened since our initial meeting – Ariel Sharon’s stroke, the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel’s renewed military operations in Gaza – much of what we talked about remains, like his fascinating body of work, quite relevant to the present.
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Damon Smith: I understand there’s a good story behind the concept of Free Zone.
Amos Gitaï: The story came from a guy who works as a driver in most of my films. He was unemployed and he called me one day and he said, “Amos, I got myself a job.” And I said to him, “What is your job?” And he said, “I import these Chevrolet 4x4s to my mushab” – a mushab is a kind of cooperative. “I make them armored and then I cross the border to Jordan where I found a Palestinian partner in the eastern part of Jordan in an area called Free Zone. And in that place we sell the cars to security companies that work in Iraq.” I said to him, “That sounds like science fiction. Would you mind if I join you on one of these journeys?” So we made the journey together and covered most of the territories you see in the film. We started in Tel Aviv and went along the Jordan Valley. We crossed the border next to the Lake of Galilee, we passed Amman, we saw signs saying Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, and then we reached this very large plateau. It’s a very flat desert plateau, and in it were something like two square miles of used cars. These were all these people from all origins buying and selling cars. I had been looking for a while for little vignettes which managed to escape the general schematics and the political correctness that we envision this conflict under. So this served as the basis of the story.
DS: Why did you decide to make the three main characters all women?
AG: On one hand, it’s a challenge. I’m making a proposition to the Middle East. I’m saying, “We have seen what man has done to this area – wars and more wars – let’s see what happens when women [take charge].” There was an element of risk; I didn’t know how it would work. Actually, when [co-writer] Marie-José Sanselme and I looked at the film, it looked entirely credible. But they were all male roles that were converted. We found some women in the Free Zone who were trading cars, so [that made] some documentary references possible.
DS: Interesting, because the male characters are all wounded or ill or, as in Rebecca’s case, out of the picture. It’s very clear that there’s some kind of alternative being set up. I wonder though, when Rebecca and Moshe’s wife arrive in the Free Zone, instead of finding a peaceful place, they find turmoil. Is that your way of commenting on the idea of utopia?
AG: Yeah, I think that obviously the Middle East has had very short periods of reasonable thinking or moderation on both sides. Either one side or the other has managed to destabilize their options, consistently. When you had the moderate Israeli government, [Yitzhak] Rabin was shot and there was a series of suicide attacks in the city which moved the public to the right. And when you had openness on the Palestinian side, you had assertive and pretty forceful Israeli attitudes to that, so I think this Free Zone – the real one and the metaphorical one – are fragile. They are [both] about the day-to-day, about people trying to build relations that are not just warlike. I think the very fact that the two sides will agree to disagree without shooting each other – for me, that’s a beginning.
DS: I was intrigued by the way so much of the action takes places within the confines of the car. Why did you and Sanselme decide on that strategy when you were creating the scenarios?
AG: The car becomes another character. Like in Kippur, this box of sardines – the helicopter – becomes the packaging of the characters’ destinies, and here the car is packaging these three women. It’s forcing them [together]. Sometimes I think it’s helpful, in a film or onstage as well, if the constraints of the set force inevitable relationships. It means that you don’t need to find scenaristic tricks; just the physical space forces proximity and intimacy. And this – by nature, by looks, by the lack of conversation, by the sheer fact that they’re sitting next to each other – creates the basic situation. From a dramatic point of view, I thought that the car would be a great ‘vehicle’ in that sense. Obviously, we needed to think a lot about how to shoot it. And I wanted to shoot the entire film in the actual locations, which sometimes was not easy. The choreography of camera movement in these shots is very complex. But as to the car’s significance: I think it’s a place of meeting, a focal place, and dramatizes the eternal Middle East conflict.
DS: Well it’s a microcosm for a small geographical area and also for varying personal crises within it. Rebecca is having an identity crisis: she’s a half-Jewish woman who’s relocated to Israel. Leila’s husband is a Palestinian who’s also carrying an American passport. There are all these questions that come up about their relation to nation and ethnicity, like the fact that Leila’s own son is responsible for burning down the farm where they live. Can you talk about that aspect?
AG: We are in this place where identities which have been cherished by each side – the Israelis and Palestinians, the Jewish and Arab worlds and so on – as a source of force and a unifying element of each group [are changing]. And I think that’s why there is an openness, there is a recognition that identity is a hybrid, it’s not consistent. We are multiple identities. I think it was important that the cast was multiple, that the crew was from varied origins. People, like a kaleidoscope, give different visions of their own self; they’re not just monolithic elements. So, in a way, the world is in each one of them, but also obviously with the ensemble of all of them together. And then there is Leila herself: a Palestinian in Jordan, a woman in a society which is not always tolerant of modern women’s behaviour and attitudes and dress. Hiam Abbass herself is a woman from a Muslim family. I was drawing quite a lot on the real identities of these three actresses, who are intelligent and were helping nourish the screenplay.
With Natalie, it started by her sending me a number of emails suggesting that she’d be interested in making a film with me in Israel. She’d seen Kadosh and Kippur and wanted to do a project with me. When we sat together in Tel Aviv to discuss it, she evoked some of these [same] questions: she was born in Jerusalem, her father is Israeli, but now her parents live on Long Island. Does she belong to Israel, does she not? What is her relation to Hebrew? So I tried to make a view, a fragment of the Middle East as I see it today, when the shining, mythical, almighty truths are finally eroding – happily. [Laughs.] And we know that it’s a fascinating era because it’s contradictory. Out of that, to make fiction was a very elaborate work. But I’m happy that the film is what it is. Other films I’ve done, like Kadosh and Kippur, are all dealing with homogeneous Israeli microcosms, but with a critical attitude to religion or military activity. And now, with this group of films, starting with Promised Land and Free Zone, I’m more into the marriage of opposites, of difference, of the fragmentation of the coherence. That’s why I also adopt, in this group of new films, non-Hebrew titles. Before, I was very much insisting on Kadosh, Kippur, Kedma, Yom Yom to give the Hebrew sound a legitimacy by putting it as the title of the film, and insisting even contractually that the thing would be distributed with a Hebrew name. Now I think that English has become, internationally, this kind of bastard language, uniting places. I think, actually, that’s part of what I want to do with my films.
DS: The question of identity permeates not only the idea of the film, but its production. The crew is hybrid and multinational, as you mentioned, and so are the characters – and it was the first film by an Israeli filmmaker to be funded by and made in an Arab country. How did that work in terms of you filming in Jordan, and using Jordanians, and having access. Was that difficult?
AG: It was actually surprising. After I came back from several trips to Jordan to see [the country] and write the scenario, in the beginning I didn’t know whether I should make an official request or not. Finally, I decided I’m interested in the procedure, so I wrote an official letter to the Royal Film Commission. And they invited me to Amman. They said that they had ordered some films of mine on the Internet.
AG: Yeah, it took them several weeks until they answered my email. But they said, “We’ve seen some of your films, we think they’re interesting”. I know that, for instance, Kadosh had been circulating in the Arab world and a lot of Muslim women actually considered that it’s worth showing. It was distributed in Morocco. And even recently I met the great writer from Bangladesh, Taslima Nasreen – she was a candidate for the Nobel Prize – and she said to me, “That is the film I love most in all of world cinema, and I show it to all my friends”, and so on. So they understood that I make films that are entrenched in Israeli reality, but that also [speak to] other cultures. Kadosh was shown by feminist groups in India, too, so it’s really interesting. And Kippur had an interesting story because Youssef Chahine, when he came back from Cannes when the film was shown, was asked by Al-Ahram, one of the largest Egyptian newspapers, what was his preferred film. And he said Kippur. He was called to order by the Union of Egyptian Directors. [Chuckles.] Although the borders are sealed, I know that through DVDs – and because both of the films are shown by the French cable channel Arte, which through satellite you can see throughout the Middle East – the films are seen in Arab countries.
So, I went to Amman and it was fascinating. They said “We saw some of your films, we are ready to help you, we will not invest money, but we’ll facilitate your shooting here.” And they said, “What would you like to film?” And I said, “Well, I’ll start with what I will not film. I will not film Petra, the beautiful archaeological site, I will not film camels in the sunset.” [Laughs.] “I want to film modernity. I want to film highways and petrol stations and parking lots and the Free Zone, which I find really moving. I think the elements that connect the Middle East are the modern elements.” And they said, “We’ll consider it.” It was helpful because Natalie also went and met the Queen and so on. So this was the first film by an Israeli director shot in an Arab country. It’s especially interesting because Israel has diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, but relations are more dealing with diplomatic issues. I’m sure you have meetings of spies, but almost never a culture. It’s almost like the American-Chinese ping-pong tournaments.
So, the Jordanians were really helpful because they waited for us at the border: All the logistics the Jordanian crew took care of. They put a lot of effort into [making sure] that we would come out happy. It was also a learning experience for a lot of the Israeli crew. I came with something like 30 people from Israel. At the beginning, they were very anxious. After half a day, they were fine.
DS: I want to ask you a little about one of the formal techniques in your filmmaking, which has become a signature aspect of your work: the long, gliding tracking shots. For instance, in Free Zone, there’s a scene where Rebecca is speaking with the American. The camera is following them, moving in and out of the trees and taking a sinuous path in its observations of them. You said the car becomes a character in the film, and to me the camera becomes a kind of character, too: the camera almost has a mind of its own. It’s almost indifferent to human conversation, moving out the window, onto the road, observing landscape. What are you up to?
AG: As a spectator, I get kind of annoyed when I see too many films which are premeditated, where I feel that I understand exactly [what will happen]. I see the stitches, let’s say; I can feel the acting is everybody’s just giving me their numbers – and unfortunately, I see more and more works like that. It’s good to try to agitate this a bit.
We’re sitting in a kind of cave, the cinema. It’s true that the brain and the eye can do simultaneous activities. They can relate elements that are not part of a narrative continuity in the classical sense, almost like a juxtaposition in the sense that [James] Joyce would use. So I’m trying, sometimes, to think about how the camera can express this sensation: that we are talking about something, but sometimes our thought or our sensation is meandering into something else. We will go into the landscape of Jordan, and it will evoke layers of memories, but we don’t have to go back to the traditional flashback structure, and we can produce another form of associative thinking, which is put in the framework of a continuous voyage.
DS: Frustrating the conventions of spectatorship in that way gives you a new way of registering sensation in the cinema, which is very palpable in all of your films. Is that also the strategy, then, behind the superimposition of images during the flashback sequences?
DS: The opening sequence was an amazingly powerful long take. How many minutes was that?
AG: Seven minutes long.
DS: The viewer doesn’t know why Rebecca’s character is weeping, but, even so, there’s that Passover song, “Had Gadia”. Since most people may not know the history behind that song, could you tell me about it?
AG: It’s “Had Gadia”, which is a traditional song sung on the evening of the seder on Passover, the Pesach, and it’s a kind of parable in which one eats or consumes the other. And the singer, Chava Alberstein, added lyrics, situated in her questioning of today’s [conflict]. The song was written 17 years ago and it’s really beautiful – and when I thought about this opening shot, I immediately called her and asked if I could use it. And she said yes. We were even thinking about re-recording it, but finally this original – which is so beautiful – and her voice, and even the orchestration she did, is great. So I decided to put it over a shot that I did for the opening with Natalie Portman, where she’s sitting in a car in front of the Wailing Wall, which we see vaguely in the background. It was a grey day, a bit melancholic, and I think that this helped a lot. She could actually put this emotional charge into it and do what I think is really spectacular [as an actor]: Move from one emotion to another and keeping it so raw. We did just two takes, because after the second one she said, “I can’t do it anymore.” I used, finally, the first one, which was so powerful. I thought it was nice to start with an enigmatic story. We see somebody, a young woman in a car, crying, and we don’t understand yet why, and the song of Chava Alberstein suggests very large kinds of cosmic questions. Finally, it will be translated to a very personal, intimate story.
DS: Did you set up that scene by telling Portman, “Okay, I’m going to film you crying now?”
AG: I said to her, “I would like to film you crying.” And some of the instructions I gave as she wept, because I speak to a lot of my actors while shooting a scene. In Kippur, I had this enormous loudspeaker I was shouting through, and the sound editor had a nightmare cleaning it up. [Laughs.]
DS: Do you think that cinema can mirror the reality of the situation in Israel? Is that your role as a filmmaker?
AG: I think “mirror” is much better than what I’m generally proposed, which is “to change”, because it’s not the medium to change reality in a direct form. I think films that have tried to do it have failed, in most cases, as films. I think we are too late in the history of cinema, after the great filmmakers of the Soviet Union, who were used [by the government]. But if we can sensitize some other way of thinking – and especially if we can avoid making a caricature of the Other in a state of conflict – I think it’s very good. If we can say to all the mechanisms which are active in such a conflict that we are not participating in their game, and we are going to propose another reading of things, then [that’s good]. As you know, the Middle East conflict is the one that consumes the biggest part of international news on a daily basis – sometimes in an excessive manner. I think we – Israelis and Palestinians – have become too auto-intoxicated by our own image. One image amounts to sympathy for one side and another to the other side. And this is not good, because it fetishizes all the suffering. I think that bearing witness to it, and at the same time as a citizen – because I care about the destiny of this region and my country – is an interesting role. After all, it is a really volcanic, ongoing conflict and it really invites somebody to articulate it. Cinema is a great medium, so it’s a great challenge. And also it’s a conflict that’s happening before your very eyes and cinema, like every medium, needs perspective. It’s difficult and it really takes a lot of thinking to say something really right so that – like at the retrospective at the Pompidou Centre, which was a very complete one, or the one here [in New York] – you can look at the audience and have a friendly attitude toward them. Part of the thing is that film [captures] contemporary history at incredible speed. But cinema is also a good way to register other episodes, historical or Biblical ones, like in Kedma.
DS: How do you think your training as an architect has influenced your filmmaking?
AG: I think it did. My father was a Bauhaus architect who came [to Palestine] in the ’30s and I have to say, to his homage, that he never tried to impress me with the well-known people he met, like Paul Klee or Kandinsky. I learned about it very late, just two years before he died; he was very sick for a few years, and he died when I was twenty. I went with him to a lot of construction sites where he was working, and I actually saw the way he was speaking to carpenters, to masons, and his interest in the fabrication of the building. And I think that was a very good memory, a very early one, just to see how you speak to people to motivate them to do good work. In retrospect, I think I did it in order to stick [close] to my dead father. So I went to study architecture and did a PhD. It was a very good exercise to think about a medium which finally would not be the medium I would do, but which has a similar discipline. It’s not an intimate art: It’s not writing or painting a canvas. You have to deal with people, with budget constraints, with logistics. The architect has to make sure that his initial project is not destroyed by the sewage engineer or by the bureaucrat at city hall – like the filmmaker, a propos of the producers, the authorities and so on. Also, intellectually, I think it starts with the question of the translation of the text to form, of giving it shape. The architect is asked to build a building for this and that function, but these are just words. And he has to give it a form. In cinema, we have a similar process for how you give shape to an idea or to a thematic. People speak a lot about the politics of film, but actually I think that the question of form is no less important or interesting.
I was invited to speak in Geneva recently about ‘political cinema,’ which is becoming too much of a topic…
DS: For you or in general?
AG: I think in general. I want to understand why the first school Hitler closed was the Bauhaus. I mean, the Bauhaus didn’t produce ideology, per se, they produced buildings, paintings. But it’s interesting that the Nazis considered threatening a form which is minimalist. They wanted kitsch, they wanted bombastic structures and neoclassical, authoritarian architecture. They understood that form has an incredible – if you like, ‘political’ – meaning. But they needed power and authority. They wanted to destroy something which was much more moderate, simple, not decorated. So I think that architecture a lot comes back [into my thinking], more and more. In some ways, architecture today I feel is becoming too much a production of images. It’s almost that architecture is influenced by cinema. There are buildings which want to make strictly a visual impact. But this is another question.
DS: You started off making documentaries and are very accomplished at it. But since the late 1990s, you’ve turned mostly to feature filmmaking. Why?
AG: Some of the answers will be in my next film, which is a documentary. I’m going the third time to House. Next year will be 25 years. In a way, when I went back to it I discovered – something we spoke about just now – that the Middle East has become so media-washed, that almost everyone is an official spokesman, and this is a poison to documentary. If I were to go wandering now with a camera in the West Bank or at the settlements to make “Field Diary 2”, I would immediately get strictly official positions, because the area is so exposed, in a way, to the media. Just to repeat known clichés is not so interesting. I’m into moving forward, to try to look to something else. House, the new one, is called News From Home [Laughs.] It’s a sequel to Free Zone, in a sense, because you see the state of fatigue of the characters. I managed to find most of those who are still alive – even the old ones, like this stonecutter. I found him in a village in the West Bank and he’s really very eloquent. I found some of the relatives of the original owners of House, a Palestinian family. It’s touching because the people I met say that the conflict has really exhausted them. They have their positions, but they think that they should be allowed to conduct their lives. Some of the Palestinians want to leave the area, to go to Montréal, and I think that would be a pity.
DS: That documentary sensibility infuses much of your feature work. Free Zone has the flavour of a documentary at times, just in terms of how the camera observes the environment. Portman even drew on her personal experience for the role and Hana Laszlo’s character has some of your own personal history.
AG: I lent her some of my father’s history, yes.
DS: So is she your proxy in this film?
AG: I would not say that, but I think that she is, somehow, “us”. When I lent her my father’s [traits], I knew that he would not like someone with long nails assuming his biography, but what can we do, you know? [Laughs.] Still, I wanted to personalize the story. I think Hanna has something of us – Israelis – in the sense that we can be invasive, charming, immediate, nonformal. All these contradictory values which can be sometimes very touching, sometimes disturbing. I like the scene in which she gets to the office of the Free Zone – especially her body language. Hiam is there being kind of prudent and basically suggesting that the office is closed and there is nothing to talk about. And Hana’s character almost walks over her into the office – she doesn’t take no for an answer. So I think that she is a kind of incarnation – if there is one – of some sort of collective character. Hanna herself is a stand-up comedian, and I had to squeeze a bit of the more eccentric qualities of that into a frame, but I think she’s great.
DS: That’s especially true in the scene where she doesn’t want to sit and have coffee with Leila, who’s showing her Arab hospitality and businesslike courtesy. Hanna wants to get down to brass tacks and find out where her money is.
AG: Right. [Laughs.]
DS: Since you mention the fatigue that people in Israel-Palestine are feeling about the conflict, there’s that final scene where Rebecca, an American, feels compelled to get out of the car and run as far as she can because of all the back-and-forth verbal feuding. Is that your final take on the situation?
AG: Yeah. If we Israelis and Palestinians keep having these endless discussions and can’t manage to resolve some possible form of coexistence and do something else with our lives besides this endless fighting, we will bore everybody else and we will stay only with ourselves. And I think that’s what might happen.
DS: As the end credits run on the world.
AG: [Laughs.] Absolutely.
DS: But I don’t see you as having a pessimistic vision of things, if only because of what we were talking about earlier, the ability of cinema to cross borders and reach people.
AG: I think there’s this anachronism of the Middle East in which things still matter, because, when I speak in Europe, the world is much more dissociated from issues. But since the issues are a matter of daily existence [in Israel/Palestine], people really care, there they are very opinionated, and for me this is really positive. I like a lot an answer that the mayor of Nablus gives in Field Diary when I ask him roughly the same question: “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” And he says to me, “Amos, it’s too luxurious to be a pessimist. It’s a great luxury and we cannot afford it.” But what does it mean? In the midst of the conflict, if we are pessimists, it means we are nihilists, because there is no way out. So optimism is also a way to project your will onto the situation, to want it to be different. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s [going to be] so wonderful, but you want it to improve, to move forward. I think that the two sides, Israelis and Palestinians, have a subconscious limit in spite of all the violence. When I speak in Europe about the films, I say, “Listen, the recent Intifada lasted something like four years. The war in Yugoslavia, which was in the heart of Europe, lasted four years. In all, about 190,000 people were killed, there were ethnic cleansings, there were women raped.” In the Middle East, in the same period of time, roughly 3,000 people on both sides were killed. This is a lot: it’s suffering, it’s life, but 3,000 is not 190,000. No Palestinian raped Israeli women or vice versa. It means that two societies, although they are battling each other, know somewhere in the back of their mind that, at some point, they will need to sit down, finally – not like in the endless discussion of Free Zone – and make an agreement.
DS: Do you think the withdrawal was a step in that direction?
AG: I think the withdrawal was very interesting, and not only in Israeli-Palestinian terms – because [Ariel] Sharon, let’s not kid ourselves, he’s a strategist, and he wants to draw the borders of Israel, which I think is overdue. Even in that sense the wall, with its brutality, is putting a message to the Israelis that the land will not be continuous between Jordan and the river, that it will be divided and fall. The people who are opposing the wall the most are the extreme right. But the disengagement is more important in Israeli-Israeli relations, meaning that the rabbis of the extreme right put a spell on Sharon like they did on Rabin, and they said that he will die. And he still was undeterred. Then, they did something very rare: they said that God would intervene and the disengagement would not happen. Religious people are normally much smarter and they can promise paradise because nobody has ever come back from it. [Laughs.] But here they promised something you could verify in three or four days and God did not intervene, and the villages and towns after a few days were the same. And it meant, in the Israeli-Israeli scene, that you have a right to act rationally. We are not just to continue this kind of endless expansion [of settlements] out of the fear that the ultra-right will start a coup d’état. Sharon challenged that. So it brings a very necessary injection of rational attitude to policy, and I think that’s the big contribution.
DS: Is that why you see a fragmentation of identity happening, which is what you’re trying to map in this trilogy?
AG: I see more and more a capacity of people to understand the other side, which for me is essentially important. Actually, the popular majority supported [withdrawal], so people started to understand that they will have to yield things, that the strict rapport de force between the two parties has achieved what it can achieve. Now it’s time to do something else. And this hybridity, this accepting the Other, is happening in some fields. In Israeli music, more than any other medium, you see Arab influence – it’s like a form of dialogue. So this trip to Jordan [to film Free Zone] was good. Thirty people experienced some weeks in an Arab country. It was not ominous and, even if it had been, the Jordanians didn’t want anything bad to happen. And the Jordanians, on the other side, for whom the Israelis were some sort of strange creatures, also had human [interactions]. So as long as these day-to-day details, not the great myths, endure, they will break down the wall [between people]. That’s what my narratives are interested in.
DS: What do you think your role is in Israeli cinema today? How do you view yourself in relation to what’s been happening over the last couple of years?
AG: I was never elected, so I cannot represent Israeli cinema. I feel more of an affinity to some films of Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodóvar, Elia Suleiman and many others, like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), because of the use of sound, imagery, the use of camera, the questions, even the attitude to ethics, politics and so on. I feel very strange that we play this game that, when we get to an official stage, we get our flags back and we say that’s what we are.
But again, to go to hybridity, there are Palestinian elements in my films – talent, help, inspiration, a text in Kedma, the use of Mohamed Bakri [in Esther] – and even of some directors, like a joint film I did with Suleiman [War and Peace in Vesoul, 1997]. There are also Israeli elements in Palestinian films, like finances, DPs, art directors and so on. We could have offered it as a model for the Middle East and said, “We have achieved something in our field which is much more complicated than politics.” Because when you negotiate a film, it’s much more delicate; it’s æsthetics, it’s sensitivity. And it’s not easy to negotiate – it’s really very subjective, very individual. We have shown, with different films by different directors, that we are actually working together. Whether you want it or not, we’re doing it, it’s happening. Instead of that, everyone comes with his pure truth and I think it’s a missed opportunity. Conceptually, I think there are ingredients of talent and thought and even pragmatic help from both sides to a lot of these works, and it’s a great, unique situation. I don’t think you ever had German-French co-operations like that in a time of war.