In The Free Zone

by Caveh Zahedi

July 21, 2006

"From the very beginning of my work as a filmmaker, I was independent"

Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi talked with Israeli director Amos Gitai, who has made the personal political repeatedly in his ever-increasing filmography.

On Sunday, July 23 at the Castro Theatre, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

(SFJFF) will celebrate the cinematic vision of Gitai by awarding him the 2006 San

Francisco Jewish Film Festival Freedom of Expression Award.

"Gitai is one of those rare filmmakers who are equally accomplished in documentary and

narrative forms. I can think of no other filmmaker whose work personifies freedom of

expression more than Gitai, both in terms of his courage in tackling complex issues in

documentaries and the innovative structure of his narratives," commented SFJFF

Program Director Nancy Fishman.

Caveh Zahedi's discussion with Gitai occurred as things reached a crisis point in the

Middle East, a subject they arrive at near the end of their edifying conversation.

Caveh: How did you end up studying architecture at Berkeley?

Gitai: I was finishing up my degree in Architecture, which I had begun studying at the

main school of architecture in Israel. I was following in the footsteps of my father who

was also an architect. He was a Bauhaus architect.

Does that mean that he had grown up in Germany?

Yes. He escaped when Hitler came to power and came to Israel, in the mid-thirties. But

then he died and I started to study architecture. Later on, as part of my studies, I came to

Berkeley to do my PhD.

So he died while you were studying architecture?

Yes, he died just as I was just beginning my studies.

Did you feel some kind of obligation to him to go into architecture?

Yeah.

(laughs) I see. But I think I remember reading somewhere that you also worked for

the Red Cross at one point?

No, it wasn't for the Red Cross. During the Yom Kippur war, I was in a rescue unit of the

Israeli Army.

So you were actually a soldier in the Israeli Army?

Yeah. We were trying to rescue the people who were wounded and burning in the tanks

and bring them to hospitals during the war.

So you went into the Israeli army after you got your PhD in Architecture?

No, it's more complicated. In Israel, when there is a war like the Yom Kippur War, you

are drawn into the Reserve army while you are studying. So this happened while I was

still studying architecture in Israel.

So how did you go from studying architecture to making films?

While at Berkeley, I was getting more and more interested in film. After coming back to

Israel, I started to make documentaries.

Was there a film industry in Israel at that time?

Not a very substantial one. And anyway, from the very beginning of my work as a

filmmaker, I was independent, so I was never really a part of what you could call an

industry.

Can you talk a little bit about the history of the house that is the subject of your film House?

I started to make that film right after I came back to Israel from Berkeley. My idea was to encapsulate, in a kind of microcosm, a series of biographies of both Palestinians and Israelis. And through the way that the biographies are connected to a single house, to try to look at the conflict in general. So in order to avoid the usual clichés, to try to figure

out something concrete about one object, one building, one house.

I love the film, but I didn't always understand what was happening. As an American, I don't have a lot of the

historical background necessary to understand some of the things that were touched on in the film. For example, how did the original owner of the house end up losing it?

He escaped during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. He left his house in that part of

Jerusalem.

And why didn't he come back after the war, or after the fighting stopped?

Because he was in Jordan, which was at war with Israel. So he lost his house, you know.

He seemed to feel that he should get it back. And you seemed to imply that there

was a law passed in '48 that made that impossible. What was that law?

Palestinians who left at a certain date during the war are not entitled to property.

So the property of anyone who left during that period was taken over by the Israeli

government?

It was first held by the Israeli government for future arrangements and negotiations.

And then they just sold it on the open market?

Yeah, exactly.

So the Israeli government just held it for a while and then they sold it to the families who lived there afterwards?

Right.

Now at the end of News from House, the more recent film about the same house, there's a great scene at the end where this guy says to you: "Why is it that I can't get a permit to build a house on my own land?" And I didn't understand why he couldn't get a permit. Can you explain that?

Because he appealed to both the Israelis and to the Palestinian authority and both of them, strangely enough, considered that it's not his land. So they contested his right to build on it.

And why did he think it was his land if they didn't think it was?

Because it was land that had originally been used for grazing and people used to

cultivate it for generations.

So he felt it was his by right of generations having used it in the past, but didn't he have a certificate that proved it was his land?

Right, but they claimed he couldn't build on it. 

He said they were going to demolish his house that he had built himself. Why were they going to demolish it?

Because they claimed that he doesn't have the right for construction.

And do you know why the Palestinian Authority wouldn't let him build on it?

I didn't get too much into details, but they consider it also not a constructable land. They said that it wasn't land that he could build on.