Israeli Director Deconstructs a Troubled House
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Filmmaker Amos Gitai may be Israel's best known director, but he has not always been its favorite. Both his documentary and fictional films deal with the contradictions of Israeli society and the human costs of living in a nation in a perpetual state of conflict. He was recently in San Francisco to receive an award from the Jewish Film Festival.
That's where NPR's Laura Sydell caught up with him.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
If you are interested in light movies about Israeli life, then don't go see an Amos Gitai film. He focuses an unflinching lens on the places where conflict lurks. The first six minutes of his most recent feature, Free Zone, is a close-up of American actress Natalie Portman in an Israeli taxicab sobbing uncontrollably.
(Soundbite of Free Zone)
Portman's character, Rebecca, has just broken up with her Israeli fiancé. She tells her cabdriver to take her anywhere and ends up riding to the Free Zone in Jordan, a tax-free area where the Israeli cabdriver, Hanna, must go to collect money from Palestinian business partners. One is called the American because he spent time there.
(Soundbite of Free Zone)
Ms. HANA LASZLO (Actress): (as Hanna Ben Moshe): My husband is (unintelligible) the American, and he's (unintelligible) with the Iraqi.
Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actress): (as Rebecca): I was hoping for something a little bit more romantic. I was thinking camels and hookahs and sand dunes.
SYDELL: This less than romantic journey will land Rebecca in a car, listening to the Israeli Hanna fighting with her Palestinian business partner, Leila, over money. The two characters are played by Israeli actress Hana Laszlo and Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass.
Gitai says he chose to put an American tourist between them to make a point.
Mr. AMOS GITAI (Director, Free Zone): From a distance, this conflict looks exotic or interesting, but once you get your neck into it, it is not easy. Because it's also about suffering, about disagreement, about the day to day dimension of conflict.
SYDELL: Gitai has always made it his business to look deeply at day-to-day life. He was trained as an architect and his first significant film was a documentary called House, made in 1980. The film examines the history of a home in Jerusalem once owned by Palestinians but taken over by the Israeli state in 1948. When he made the film, the house was being expanded by its newest owner, an Israeli professor. The documentary opens at a West Bank stone quarry where Palestinian masons are cutting stone for the addition.
(Soundbite of House)
Gitai interviews everyone who has been connected with the house for over 50 years. Palestinian stonemasons, Israeli builders, Algerian Jewish refugees who were tenants after they came to Israel penniless, the new owner and the former Palestinian owner, Dr. Mohammed Dijani(ph). He asked Dijani how he feels about seeing his former home.
(Soundbite of House)
Dr. MOHAMMED DIJANI (Homeowner in film): I (unintelligible) man who says he'd pay anything for the place he was brought up in. He has enough money to buy it, but how can he buy it?
Mr. GITAI: Why not?
Mr. DIJANI: Because the Jews will not give it to him.
SYDELL: House was commissioned by Israeli television, but after Gitai finished the film they refused to air it. He says at the time Israeli officials did not want to learn about the Palestinian point of view.
Mr. GITAI: I felt an urgency to also give the Palestinians their voice, their attachment to the same piece of land. They do exist. They have a face. They have a name. They have an attachment to the same piece of land. And whatever will be the political solution, we have to face it.
SYDELL: In 1983, when another one of Gitai's films was censored, he left the country and moved to France for ten years. He returned to his native city, Haifa, in 1993. Over the years he has received international recognition. He's won awards at both the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals.
Unidentified Man #2: It is our great honor to present the 2006 Freedom of Expression Award to director Amos Gitai.
SYDELL: This summer, Gitai's ongoing frank examination of Israeli life was honored by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Peter Stein, the festival's director, says given what's going on in Israel and Lebanon, there is a desire right now among some Jews to circle the wagons. But to him and the festival's Board, Gitai represents something very important in Jewish tradition.
Mr. PETER STEIN (San Francisco Jewish Film Festival): There's a sense that Jewish life throughout the world is under siege, Israel as a nation is under siege, but what is really remarkable about Jewish culture is the insistence on self-questioning. And Gitai's interest from the outset has been to consistently ask those troubling questions and to do them in a way that is aesthetically moving.
SYDELL: Gitai has made over 40 feature and documentary films in his 26-year career. One of his most popular is the 1999 movie Kadosh.
(Soundbite of Kadosh)
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)
Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking foreign language)
SYDELL: Kadosh tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish couple that has been happily married for ten years but can't have children. Their rabbi says it's grounds for divorce and he pushes the man to marry someone else. Gitai says at the time he made Kadosh there was a controversy in Israel over whether the state should follow Jewish law and prohibit marriages between couples of different religions.
Mr. GITAI: So I said to myself, let's make a little simulation. According to the Torah, what would be the country like if intimate affairs would be run strictly by the Torah, with all due respect. And let's see what is the position of women in the Jewish tradition.
SYDELL: Within Israel, Gitai's reputation is mixed. His films are often seen as too art house. Others feel he is too interested in speaking to an international audience. Still, filmmakers in Israel recognize that to that international audience he is their best-known director. His style and influence are undeniable, says Israeli documentary maker Yoran Honig(ph).
Mr. YORAN HONIG (Documentary Filmmaker): Even if you ask me or other Israelis that are saying oh, no way. He didn't influence our style. He influenced our main themes. He must have. Because sometimes it's easier to know okay, that I don't want to do. But it's still a big influence on you.
SYDELL: Certain attitudes have changed in Israel. The third part of Gitai's series on the house in Jerusalem is scheduled to be broadcast on Israeli television. Despite the current conflict, Gitai sees reasons for optimism. Large numbers of Palestinians and Israelis have begun to recognize the other side's view. And he says even most of the Israeli right wing has accepted the Palestinians' claim to some of the disputed land.
Mr. GITAI: Even parts of the Likuud(ph) understand that this land will have to be divided between the two people. And I think it's similar on the Palestinian side. You have undercurrents of people, sometimes checked by opinion polls. The majority of the Palestinians understand that they will not achieve the greater Palestine for them either, and that they will have to accept the existence of Israel.
SYDELL: Gitai believes in the power of film to slowly change minds by raising difficult questions. He shot his film Free Zone in Jordan with a half Palestinian and half Israeli crew. Gitai recalls an interview he did many years ago with Palestinian Basam Chaka(ph), then mayor of Nablus. He asked Chaka if he was a pessimist. Chaka said in our situation, it's a luxury to be a pessimist. You must remain an optimist every day.
Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.