DOCUMENTING OUR DISPLACEMENT. The filmmaker Amos Gitai was born in Israel in 1950 where his father Munio Gitai Weintraub was a prominent Bauhaus architect and his mother Efratia Margalit an intellectual, a storyteller and a teacher. Amos trained as an architect in Haifa and at UC Berkeley in America before becoming internationally known for his documentaries and feature films about the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and personal and collective memory. Among many other works, his movie and play about the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, has had special success. Amos teaches in American universities and was also the first filmmaker to hold the Chair in Artistic Creation at the Collège de France. The recipient of numerous prestigious international film prizes as well as the French Légion d’Honneur, he lives between Paris and Israel.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Amos Gitai, how did you spend your time during the recent years of pandemia, and what is your next project?
I was working in Israel, teaching both my original profession of architecture and cinema at the Faculty of Arts of Tel Aviv University. When you teach in Israel you cannot avoid speaking about politics and what’s happening. So this is what I was doing, and since then I am preparing a play. Next March, in the Théâtre national de la Colline, a National Theatre of France, we’re going to do a theatrical adaptation of House, my very first film which I did more than 40 years ago.
How did your film House come about?
When I finished my Ph.D. studies for architecture in Berkeley in 1980 and got my doctorate I decided to do something else. I came back to Israel and made a documentary film about one house in Jerusalem, which until 1948 was owned by a Palestinian gynecologist, Dr. Mahmoud Dajani. During the War the Dajani family left the house, and after the war the Israeli government installed a family who came from Algeria. When I was doing the film a very well-known Israeli economist moved that family to mass public housing and decided to install himself in this house and to change it from a one floor house to a villa of three floors. To do that he had to bring Palestinian workers from the refugee camps and stones from the mountains of Hebron. Through this one house the film tells the story of Jerusalem and the relations between Israelis and Palestinians. When I did the film there was a shift of power to the right, the Labor Party had lost for the first time and Likud took power. The new head of television asked me to cut out big chunks of what the Palestinian worker and the original Dajani were saying, which I did not; and so the film was never shown. 15 years later I did an additional film, and an additional one 25 years later. It’s a rare project of digging into the story of one house and the protagonists.
“We are part of a displaced humanity”
Israel is very problematic, and I would even say its representation is intoxicated. In order to avoid demagogy I prefer to focus each time on a microcosmos becoming a metaphor, and to tell the story of these microcosms one after the other. Now I have a count of 25 fiction films, some with French actresses such as Jeanne Moreau, Natalie Portman, Rosamund Pike and Juliette Binoche, but also a lot of Israeli and Palestinian actresses.
In some of your movies you also talk about France, for example in your Roses à credit?
Yes, it is actually an adaptation of a novel of Elsa Triolet, the companion of Louis Aragon, and so this is really about post-Second World War France. It’s a beautiful, courageous piece that she wrote in the 1950s, at roughly the same time that Simone de Beauvoir wrote Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). Elsa Triolet deals with a French society bored with ideologies. They all only want consumption, to buy new eau de cologne, new washing machines and so on. They don’t want any more ideologies because they have brought so much suffering. France TV asked me to adapt this to the screen, and there is a fantastic brochette of French actresses including Léa Seydoux, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Catherine Jacob, and Arielle Dombasle.
What is your next film?
We are doing it in the south of Israel, in the area of Beersheba. This town in the middle of the desert has the longest mass public housing, 250 metres long, that now serves as an absorption centre for immigrants, quite a lot from Ukraine and Russia. We will place the entire story in this building, because this is the last of a trilogy whose principle is films which are shot in one location – so the entire film shot in a tramway, or in a bar in Haifa, or in this mass public housing. Sometimes the most profound encounters of our life are par hazard. We are no longer living in the same village for generations. We meet somebody and it becomes a very important encounter. I like what Joyce did when he described his town in The Dubliners by a juxtaposition of little vignettes, and the film is a composition of fragments of stories.
What are you researching through your movies?
My research is always about the relation between narrative and form – we have to invent in both senses. We have to make films which talk about the reality of Israel, which is very politicised, sometimes disturbing. The new government has got a majority of the Israeli parliament with a strong, very extreme, right wing party. Mr. Netanyahu created this golem, and now this golem is taking over and they will make him dance. As a citizen of Israel I’m very alarmed. My work has a strong civic dimension. I’m a veteran of the Yom Kippur War. I was in a helicopter which was shot down. I was asked recently for my analysis of the Yom Kippur War, and we are today in a similar situation. When Israeli politics become very hermetic, arrogant and sure of themselves, the other side – which was Egypt and Syria in 1973 – almost don’t have an option but to have a war. If we are going in that direction, it is a very dangerous proposition. Now I’m working to finish this piece of theatre, House. I am interested in transposing a subject into different mediums, like I did with the film about the assassination of Rabin, so there is a film, there is a documentary, there are my conversations with Rabin, but also a big exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and a book published by Gallimard.
“The best films that I’ve seen in my life start when the screening is over and we go home with wonder”
Amos Gitai, you are one of the most successful filmmakers of your generation. You also write and are a professor and an architect. Are your images a synthesis of many other things?
Yes, because Alain you and I can reveal that we were born in the same year, 1950, along with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and at this stage we are doing what we feel like doing. That’s a great privilege and a lot of fun, and also it’s a necessity, because unfortunately the formats have become too rigid. This is true about cinema, and it’s also true about visual arts and literature. Netflix, with all its strong capital, makes films which are less and less challenging. We don’t have Jean-Luc Godard or Pasolini or great poetic creators anymore. We need to call people to reformulate the medium, because cinema is a fantastic medium, using text and music and movement and cinematography and so on. But, when I came to Paris yesterday from Tel Aviv, there were many films on the flight and nothing inspiring to see. So it’s a necessity to reach out.
Nowadays people watch more films at home on TV and go less to the cinema. Does the loss of the social involvement of going to the cinema concern you?
We see now the risks of these very highly powered platforms. I’m not even talking about Facebook and Twitter, because I’m not a member of any of them and I never was, but now a guy got Twitter for $40 billion and decided that he’s going to put out all the fake news of the planet. When they have these extremely strong machines diffusing these bad ideas we have to wish ourselves good luck, because the planet does not only need to be preserved from an environmental point of view. You almost want to read the biblical chapter about the deluge. Let’s call Noah, with his little boat, to float on this ocean of bad products, very aggressive consumer society, incited by all these structures. What me and some other artists are doing is a tiny gesture to bring thinking, to challenge these different forms of art – and that’s necessary. We have to challenge it. Not so long ago I had the great privilege of talking with Jean-Luc Godard, a recluse at 92 years old but very young in his brain. So we need to inject into the arts, into cinema, into literary works, people who will reconfigure it, because otherwise it will be just a consumption object. I often say, “I like the public to be an interpreter, not a consumer.” The best films that I’ve seen in my life start when the screening is over and we go home with wonder. Some of the images leave a trace in our mind and we have to work as an interpreter, almost like in the old Talmudic schools.
Are you still as much in love with cinema as you were when you decided not to work as an architect?
It’s a fantastic medium. There’s so many options, so many challenges.
Is your project about the extraordinary Doña Gracia Nasi still going on?
Yes, it’s an important subject of this incredibly impressive 16th century woman, born in Lisbon and then going throughout Europe in a period of Inquisition and trying to keep her identity. This is a fascinating project and I hope we will find the proper means to do it in a good way.
Nathalie Portman in Free Zone a film by Amos Gitai
Juliette Binoche in Disengagement by Amos Gitai
Léa Seydoux in the Amos Gitai film Roses on Credit
“We are all contradictory, and a lot of my films are a collection of contradictions”
Amos Gitai, how do you cast?
When I cast, I don’t like the position of the almighty director who is sitting with his sunglasses scaring the actors, because in cinema you can get a shy person who will be a fantastic performer. When I worked with Yael Abecassis, the lead actress for Kadosh, I had a conversation with her and I was convinced she could do it beautifully. I had a similar experience with Rosamund Pike, Léa Seydoux, Samantha Morton and Hanna Schygulla and with the wonderful Jeanne Moreau. I like to have a dialogue with people and then bring them to do a role. Mid-March will be the premiere of the House play in Paris, and hopefully we’re also going to show it in the Barbican in London and also at Piccolo Teatro in Milano. Some of the actors are very well achieved, and one of them, for me the jewel of these performers, is a young Palestinian woman, Behira Ablassi, who is 27 years old and works in a kindergarten. She is outstanding. I like to mix very experienced people and very young people.
What is your relationship with your actors?
I consider that making movies, being a director, is not very far from my original profession of an architect. You have to confederate a group of talented individuals, women and men, from all nations: Israelis, Palestinians, French, American, English and Italian, whatever, and to give them a common cause in such a way that the set becomes a platform of a dialogue. You have to listen to all of them. You have to also be capable to make decisions quickly, because this is not a very cheap medium. It is logistics, technology, cameras, big crews and so on. In the beginning when I did works like my first feature film Esther, which is based on a biblical story, I was not so much into actors. For me the issue was to place an actress or an actor in a landscape and they will say the dialogue. A few films later I was acting with Assi Dayan, a friend who was a great actor, the son of Moshe Dayan. I found myself in front of him and he was teaching me how to act when I had also to direct, and I started to understand the point of view of the actor.
Because the way films are made today is so different than when you started did you need to learn a lot of new techniques?
It has changed, but not necessarily for the worse. I remember that when we stopped editing by cutting the celluloid and putting the Scotch and the very heavy reels that were like tons of weight and we started to work digitally on an editing table a lot of people said, “Aah, I wanted to smell the celluloid. I wanted to feel the Scotch, the glue.” I don’t like the over mystification of this. Digital editing helps you almost to connect your brain straight to the screen, and to check alternatives very fast. It’s fascinating.
Has new technology brought about an evolution in cinema?
The technologies are not complicated to learn. I do what I want and I’m very open to new forms, but we have to think of see what the film says, how it says it, the quality of it, the sound quality, the music, all of that.
You were born in Israel but became a diaspora Jew. Is this a contradiction?
The diaspora is part of the Jewish tradition for thousands of years. There was a diaspora in Babylon. There was a diaspora in Alexandria. This is a very old story. I’m definitely not against diaspora. We are all contradictory, and a lot of my films are a collection of contradictions. In Laila in Haifa a Palestinian woman says to an Israeli one that she will not speak Hebrew because this is the language of the occupier; and she makes a big, very convincing speech. Then, 10 minutes later, she speaks in Hebrew! I like contradictions.
How is your work perceived in Israel?
Some people like it and some don’t, which is normal. I don’t want to be consensual, my project is to do works which are challenging. I am not religious but the greatness of the Bible is that it is not a PR text, it says that the mightiest king, David, was corrupted. The Prophet Nathan confronts him and says, “You, the king, desired Bathsheba, and since you desired her you sent her husband Uriah to get killed in the war. You are immoral.” We agree with Spinoza that the Bible is a human work, and the author was probably even paid by the Davidic house and yet still the chief editor of the Bible, he or she, decided that for the DNA of future generations it was important to put in texts that were critical. At that time the risks of decapitation were even greater than they are today for chief editors and authors!
Who are you Amos Gitai?
I’m still working on it, and I am trying to understand who I am and who we are. Sometimes our friends explain it to us better and then we can articulate it ourselves. Displacement is a big subject of my work. Recently in my installation in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence about displacement, I exposed fragments of films with the common theme of displacement. It’s a condition of humanity, a condition of modernity. We are not anymore living in the same tribe from one generation to another. We are part of a displaced humanity, because of war, because of economic pressures and many other reasons; and we have to make sense of this new condition of displacement.
Thank you very much.
Images courtesy of Amos Gitai.
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