Amos Gitai: In the Free Zone

by Caveh Zahedi
 

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

 

FILMMAKER CAVEH ZAHEDI (WHO INTERVIEWED HENRY JAGLOM AWHILE BACK TO VERY

ENGAGING AFFECT) 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.

In Free Zone, you used an American star (Natalie Portman) for the first time.

How did that happen? Was it because of financial considerations?

 

No, Natalie Portman wrote me a number of emails and then when I didn't answer her she

sent me faxes, saying that she would like to make a film with me in Israel. And then after

several months I called her and suggested we have a meal together, which we did. We

had dinner in Tel Aviv, and she told me a little bit about her family background - the fact

that she is the daughter of an Israeli father and an American mother. And I thought I

should include her in this project I was preparing called Free Zone.

 

So you already had the idea for the project before you met her?

 

I did have the idea before, and was looking for someone who could play the role of the

foreigner.

And why didn't you answer her emails initially?

 

Because I didn't see a way to integrate her into the story at first.

 

The film ends with the Israeli and the Palestinian woman fighting in the car, as

Natalie Portman's character runs away. That seemed very allegorical. I was

wondering if you could talk about the allegory of that film and about that ending in

particular?

 

I'd rather not spell it out too much. But I can just tell you about this particular shot. I

think that if we Israelis and Palestinians keep disputing with one other, we probably will

bore the rest of the world and then they will run away.

 

I see.  And how did the short film that you made for the September 11 compilation film come about?

 

This was a project that was proposed by Canal Plus in France.  They proposed it to 11 directors including myself, Sean Penn, Ken Loach and several others.  I thought it was an interesting project in that it showed different points of view from different places.

 

Yeah, it was fascinating.  I was a little confused by yours though.  I wasn’t sure if you were trying to put 9/11 in perspective,  in the sense that terrorist bombings happen in Israel all the time, or if you were criticizing the Israeli journalists for being self-absorbed and myopic…. Could you talk a little bit about what you were trying to say?

 

I was commenting on the state of the media.  You know, the media will always direct its camera to where news becomes a spectacle, so if you have a tsunami the camera will turn there, and if it’s 9/11 then that will switch off any other event.

 

And how did you feel about the Youssef Chahine short that was part of the September 11 compilation?  It was very anti-Israeli.

 

But I think that’s part of what was interesting about the project.   There were different voices and each one had it’s own point of view.  And obviously Chahine has a different point of view than I do.  But that’s the nature of a collective film.

 

I read somewhere that you moved to Paris at one point because your films had provoked a lot of controversy in Israel.  Did you leave because of threats to you or was it because you were in trouble with the government or the censors? 

 

It was the period right after I made the film House and another film called Field Diary. It was very difficult for me to work in Israel so I decided to go away with my little daughter and my wife and we went to Paris for a few weeks and a few weeks turned into seven years.

 

Why was it difficult for you to work in Israel? 

 

Because I couldn’t find people in Israel that were interested in or open to what I was interested in discussing.

 

And that has changed since then?

 

I think so.  I think that right now there’s a recognition that the other exists, which is an improvement.

 

What’s it like being a filmmaker in Israel? Are there state subsidies?  Is there state censorship?  How is it different than being a filmmaker in the United States for instance?

 

We have some foundations similar to what the Americans have with the National Endowment for the Arts.  It’s called the Israeli Special Foundation for Cinema.  And we have several television channels who will sometimes commission works.

 

Would you say that it’s easier in Israel to make films or harder or just hard in different ways?

 

I think it’s always a challenge to make a film.  Whether you’re an independent American filmmaker, or an Israeli or French or Iranian or Taiwenese filmmaker, I think it’s always a challenge if you want to do something that is not completely conventional and just controlled by the people with their checkbook.  If you want to do something which is original, something which is different both in what you want to say and in the way that you want to tell the story, then it’s always a challenge.

Yeah, but for example in Iran, it’s probably easier to make films in terms of getting financing to make them, but harder to say what it is you want to say.  So there are differences in how one has to go about it because of the way the system is structured.  So I was just wondering what it’s like in Israel.

 

When you look at the products of Iranian cinema, they obviously manage to make quite a lot of interesting films. So they probably managed to justify to the regime why they should make films. I think we should always be confident about the ability of filmmakers to survive the regimes and to get across what they want to say. And anyway, this is the kind of cinema that interests me, whether it’s a Fassbinder or a Rossellini or an Abbas Kiarostami.  

 

Do you get most of your financing from inside Isreal or from abroad?

 

We always try to construct a structure of coproduction to keep some independence.

You’ve made a lot of films.  I think you’ve made over 40 films. The thing about being prolific is that the more films you make, the less time you have to spend on each one.  One theory is that if you make fewer films you can make better ones and if you make lots of films they won’t be as good.  And some people like [Chilean film director] Raul Ruiz says that he makes as many as he can because he feels like it’s not how much work you put into it that makes it good or not, but something you can’t really control.  Do you have any thoughts about the quantity vs quality equation?  Do you feel like you wish you could spend more time on them or do you like going fast?    And do you feel like the quality ever suffers from that? 

 

I think that basically there is no rule.  If you look at Fassbinder, he did sometimes two or three films a year.  If you look at John Houston or even John Ford, in the more prolific periods of their lives, they did quite a lot of work.  And obviously, at a certain point, when they started to age, their productivity went down.   I don’t think there is really a rule. I don’t think it should be a strategy.  I don’t think you should over-calculate it.   I think it’s more organic. Anyway, sometimes life will stop you by itself.

But do you ever wish you had more time to prepare a film or to edit a film?

 

No, because I think in the Middle East things are different.  Sometimes you need the context, you need this kind of pressure cooker to create a very dense situation against which you make the film.  And you need it both for your mental state and to explain the project to your actors and so on.

I’m a big fan of Ken Loach, but I wasn’t  crazy about his contribution to the Septermber 11 compilation because I felt it was very  didactic.

 

I agree.

So I was just wondering what your thoughts are on the whole question of politics vs art, i.e on being subtle and complex vs. being politically effective.  I think they’re both important, and I’m wondering how you think about that problem?

I think that over-indoctrinating your film is a mistake because it’s like a poison - if you over-indoctrinate you kill it.  I think you should keep ambiguities.  Also, we are beyond the stage of pamphlets as that is too much used in the publicity industry.   So I think we are walking on a very thin thread.  On the one hand, I like to say certain things in my films, but on the other hand I think we should keep the contradictions in.  And the contradictions are kind of immunizing the piece - they preserve it.  So if you look at the old film House which I did roughly 25 years ago, it still holds up.  You can still watch it as if it was made today.  It doesn’t feel dated because it’s structured in a way that you don’t overload it with meaning because you trust your audience to also do some work themselves.

What other Israeli directors do you like?

I like a documentar y filmmaker named Perlov.  He was originally from Brazil.  He did Jonas Mekas-like diaries at one point.  Another Israeli film that I liked was called “Or.”  

 

I really liked “Late Marriage.”  Have you seen that?

 

Yeah, yeah.  It’s good.

 

You mentioned Rossellini and Fassbinder.  What other directors do you like?

 

I like the Taiwenese director Hou Hsiao Hsien.  But I also like very different films.  I even like films like “Some Came Running” by Vincente Minnelli.  I also like Sam Fuller a lot, who I worked with.  He acted in some of my films.

 

Really?  Which ones?

 

Golem.  Spirit of Exile.  And a theater piece I did in Venice.  It was called The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness.

 

So you also direct theater?

 

I directed one play.  It was the only play I directed.

 

And did you write that or was that by someboy else?

 

It’s an adapatation of a historical piece by Josephus Flavius.

 

Oh, it’s like an ancient piece?

 

Yes, and Fuller was playing the narrator of this piece.

 

How do you feel about what’ s happening in Israel as we speak with the bombing of Lebanon?

 

I think it’s very disturbing and I would hope that…  Anyway,  I think that the solution to the conflict already exists and I think all this ongoing conflict is a great waste of life.

 

When you say that the solution to the conflict already exists, what are you referring to exactly?

 

I’m saying that both sides already know what it should be like.  We just need the political courage to make it.

 

And what should it be like?  What do you mean?

 

Essentially, we should find a form of co-existence and mutual recognition.  Right now, we are in a relatively weak political situation where people cannot move forward.  It’s unfortunate.