Israel through the eyes of Amos Gitai


One of the region’s most acclaimed directors tells the story of modern Israel.

Interviewing Amos Gitai is like trying to cross the land border into his native Israel – there is nothing straightforward about it.

Not only was the meeting rescheduled thrice, but when it finally took place, the Gitai that greeted the press threatened to be noncommittal, hidden behind a large pair of sunglasses.

Like his films perhaps, which tend not to have the neat Hollywood endings. That’s how Gitai, the interviewee, sometimes coyly played. Vague.

The publicist had warned, he would need time to warm up to the questions. It was – after the few scribes who had had their time with him and left somewhat distressed – a compassionate gesture on her part.

Compassion. That was a word Gitai himself brought up. “You have to have compassion for your characters. When a writer writes about people, he doesn't have to prejudge them. He observes them meandering around their lives and all the contradictions.”

Indeed Gitai allows his personages a lot of space and time to “meander”. Some of his shots are unconventionally long, depending solely on the interaction of characters to carry the scene.

In “Plus tard, tu comprendas” (“One day you will understand”), there is a scene of an old Jewish couple dancing. They are locked in an embrace, going round and round to the music. The film evokes the incredible tenderness between the pair, before reaching an emotional climax where the camera closes in on the woman. Her comfort in her husband's arms finally gives way to the knowledge that the Nazis will soon come to take them away.

Among Gitai's 40-odd productions, many are set against the historical backdrop of modern Israel. He calls them his “contradictions”. “I like to find stories when the big events are juxtaposed with the intimate, which you see in 'Disengagement' and 'Plus tard, tu comprendras' ”

In “Disengagement” (2006), Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was the “big event”. The Israeli soldiers' military manoeuvre to evict Jews from the settlements to make way for the Palestinians was the backdrop to a French woman's emotional reunion with her teenage daughter, who had been living in the settlements since her mother abandoned her as a baby.

Speaking of “big events”, there is of course the Holocaust, which eventually led to the establishment of the State of Israel after World War II.

Countless films have been made about the tragedy, and Gitai admits it was not easy to present it in a new light. “It is a tough job, exactly because I wanted to speak differently about it. But I decided to make a film about what will not be said, and not what will be said, about what will not be transmitted.”

The result is “Plus tard tu comprendes”. As the trial of Gestapo leader, Klaus Barbie, unfolds in the background, a French man makes his own discovery about his mother's Jewish heritage, which has been hidden since the war.

“Some people went through the Holocaust and they will try to save the memories from their children. So in a way by doing that, by not transmitting, and it will be encouraging the next generation to do the job,” Gitai says.

His films owe much of their allure to their characters, which are lavishly written and skillfully directed. In particular, his female leads are textured and human, holding their own in the movies, whether as Eastern Europeans trafficked into Israel as prostitutes (“Promised Land”), or simple women forced to shoulder responsibilities thrust onto them (“Free Zone”).

The appearance of the turbulent politics of the Middle East as supporting cast is either a draw or drawback for the audience. Those fascinated by the conflict will not be let down by this Israeli filmmaker, whose stories are generous with dramatic actualities.

Take, for instance, his contribution to “11'09"01 September 11”, a collection of short films by international directors on the terror attacks. In Gitai’s story, an Israeli journalist was reporting on a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, when news broke that planes had hit the World Trade Center.

Perhaps, as one of his characters in “Free Zone” says, “the only thing certain in Israel is the intifadas and war”. Unrest has become an inevitable part of Israel. Gitai himself was in a helicopter that was shot down during his military service in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  That episode was eventually turned into the autobiographical “Kippur”.

To him, Israel is “opinionated”. “Media-wise it produces a lot of noise.”

There are some in Israel who may say the same about him. His films have been variously censored and criticised for attacking religion.

Gitai says he is not religious. He sees cinema as a “bridge between cultures and prejudices” rather than a vehicle of change. “We should not make politicians unemployed, so let them bring the peace we want.”

“This conflict has lasted forever and I think it is time to find a way of coexistence.”

Still, he does point out that, despite the fighting, a certain code of conduct has been observed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, unlike in the war that broke up the former Yugoslavia.

“No Israeli has ever raped a Palestinian woman and no Palestinian has ever raped an Israeli woman,” Gitai says. And while the conflict in Europe killed more than a quarter of a million, the death toll of the last intifada was around 3,000 on both sides, he adds.

He may be right. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hogs the media spotlight because it is more accessible to journalists than places like Darfur. Or perhaps, all this human drama just has a seduction that Gitai himself is not immune to.

“My father bought it / For just two coints? The lamb! The lamb!

Along came the cat/ And it ate up the lamb/

And the dog choked the cat/ That ate the lamb/ That my father bought/ For just two coins.”

Thus goes the song that accompanies a sobbing Natalie Portman in the opening sequence of “Free Zone”, a film about Israelis and Palestinians.

“Then came the Angel of Death/ And slew the butcher/ Who killed the ox

That drank the water/ That quenched the fire/ That burnt the stick/

That beat the dog/ That choked the cat/ That ate the lamb/ That my father bought/ For just two coins.”

Her mascara streaks down her tear-stained face, and the song carries on, an allusion to this all-prevailing crisis.

“Why do you sing, little lamb?/ Spring isn't yet here and Passover neither.

Have you changed?/ I have changed/ Every evening like each evening/ I asked four questions

Tonight I have another question

How long will this circle of horror end?

Of persecutor and persecuted/ Of executor and executed

When will this madness end?”

At that moment, the call to prayer sounds.

“Allah Akhbar!”

God is great.


Footnote: Amos Gitai's films are available at He is currently working on a theatrical musical, “La Guerre des fils de la lumière contre les fils des ténèbres” (“The war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness”), which will play in Avignon, Barcelona, Athens and Istanbul this July.


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May 2009

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dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

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