When Amos Gitai began making films in the 1970s, the young Israeli cinema received little attention and less respect. But in just a few years, Gitai established an international reputation for rigorous, artful explorations of his country’s emotional and psychological landscape. His success was especially remarkable since his movies are composed of metaphor, poetry, tension, and silence, not action and resolution. Gitai originally planned to become an architect like his father, and he earned his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. After the rescue helicopter in which he was riding during the 1973 Yom Kippur War was shot down — an incident he recreated at the beginning of “Kippur” (2000) — Gitai began filming with a Super 8mm camera he’d received as a gift. He has become Israel’s most prolific director with more than 40 documentaries and features, and its most prestigious. ‘Kadosh’ (1999) was the first Israeli film in 35 years shown in competition at Cannes, and each of his subsequent films has premiered at either Cannes or Venice. A soft-spoken bull of a man, Gitai was in the Bay Area last week to accept the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival‘s Freedom of Expression Award and present his latest works. “Free Zone,” an enigmatic road trip featuring Natalie Portman, screens Wed., Aug. 2, at the Century in Mountain View and Sat., Aug. 5, at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The documentary “News From Home/News From House” shows Wed., Aug. 2 at the Century, and its 1980 predecessor, “House,” plays Aug. 5 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley.
SF360: Is it possible to be a filmmaker in Israel and not be political?
Amos Gitai: It’s a good question. (Laughs.) By the nature of life in Israel, you are in a situation that Reality with a large R crawls under the door of your bedroom. It kind of comes in and seizes you and, like the opening scene of ‘Kippur,’ throws you into the war. You think that you will conduct a kind of a normal life – waking in the morning, going to your job, coming back in the evening, see the family and so on — but the Middle East logic is different. And from time to time there are these great eruptions [that] break into your life, your intimate life, and seize you and throw you to the big History with the big H. I think that’s why most of us, most of the Israeli cinema, is dealing with this context. It is our experience, really.
SF360: A recurring theme in your films is confinement, as a metaphor for imprisonment. What does that represent or reflect?
Gitai: We are all the time in a situation that we don’t have complete control of our destiny. To Americans that is a new experience, maybe since 9/11, that there can be an event which is external — or even the nature of disasters, let’s say, in New Orleans, which are partly nature, partly human — which is larger than you, which will disturb … the usual conflicts which exist in our job, career, love life, and so on. There will be from time to time these events that — to use your word — cage your experience and put you into this box. Either in a helicopter [in ‘Kippur’], which is really a box, or in a car [in ‘Free Zone’] or in a very claustrophobic [ultra-Orthodox] community in ‘Kadosh,’ you are all the time boxed in. In a concrete or metaphorical way, that’s your day-to-day experience.
SF360: Would you talk about your preference for emotion over action, and your resistance to the conventions of commercial filmmaking?
Gitai: For me, art and politics don’t follow the same rules. In art you should be radical. Radical decisions and no compromises, or as little as you feel like. Politics is the art of compromise. I think the great statesmen were wise people who composed imperfect solutions. The one who wanted perfect solutions, it ended up in gulags or worse. It ended with a guy like Pol Pot, who goes to the Sorbonne and thinks that everybody should do agriculture, and everybody who doesn’t he finally shoots them. Filmmakers should keep it non-hermetic. We should not draw the final line. We should trust our audience, let them figure out the conclusion. And normally, I have to say that people manage to figure out what I would like to say, for good or bad. (Smiles.) It means that in spite of the open structure of my films, people profoundly got what I want to say. Maybe it needed a bit more work than the usual, but they did [it].
SF360: Let’s talk about ‘Free Zone.’ How did you achieve its loose, improvisational feeling?
Gitai: I don’t like so much the term ‘improvisation’ because people think that you come with a camera one morning and you didn’t wake up in time, or the actors didn’t wake up in time, and whatever comes that’s what you do. That’s not the process. You pre-simulate, you write the text, and then you work more and more closely with your actors, sometimes with a site which inspires you, and then you reinterpret it. It’s kind of a Talmudic procedure of questioning and reinterpreting and reinterpreting again and again and again. The Talmud is not really, if I use this parable, about improvisation. It’s about dialectics: People ask questions, they cannot know exactly the answer and then they integrate it because it managed to articulate a kind of response.
SF360: So you wrote a script, and then invited the actresses to refine it with you?
Gitai: Yeah. We did a reading in Tel Aviv with Natalie Portman, Hanno Laslo and Hiam Abbass in a room like the room we’re sitting now, and then they had comments on the script. Some of the comments were seized and integrated in the script, some of them I said, ‘No, that departs too far from what I want to do.’ And then we re-articulated some of the comments, which still allowed us to change whatever we decided.
SF360: Let’s talk about ‘News From Home/News from House.’ What was the impetus to revisit those people just nine years later?
Gitai: I was asked by the producers. And as I said yesterday to the audience [at the Jewish Film Festival], when you get this request you kind of hesitate. You say, ‘Isn’t it just mechanical? What happens if I tell the sweet producers yes and then I come to the place and it’s really not interesting?’ So you feel a bit anxious. But the greatness of this group of people, whatever they are — Israelis, Palestinians — is that they are very original and have their own reading of the situation. And they are very moving and surprising. The most severe criticism doesn’t come from the Israelis, it comes from the Palestinians, from this member of the Dajani family in Amman about the autocracy of the regimes. And the most open vision of Islam comes from [an] Israeli. So people cross borders and I think that’s very moving. It means that they accept the other, on the other side. And this is a good and complex presentation of the situation. I was asked by the Royal Film Commission in Jordan to come to Amman to show some works and I think I will take them up on this invitation.
SF360: As a director who works in both documentary and narrative, how would you compare them?
Gitai: Like I say in my voice-over in ‘Free Zone,’ I think they are complementary. Documentary, if I have to create a metaphor for it, it’s like a kind of archeological work. You dig, you want to excavate, to find out something that you didn’t know when you started the project. Like the two of us are having a conversation, you set your questions, but you don’t know exactly what will be. Maybe you had some idea what direction I would like to go, because you have read some things that I said, but you don’t know word by word. That’s my position when I go to meet people. Fiction is much more constructed. You have a scenario, you have done your back and forth with thinking about how to put it together, and this scenario will dictate the architecture. Documentary is archeological, fiction is architectural.
SF360: As a political filmmaker, what difference do you think art can make?
Gitai: A lot, and not so much. We can go into the text of Ecclesiastes. (Laughs.) Ecclesiastes is really beautiful. It says that nothing is changing under the sun.
SF360: Aren’t the lyrics to the Byrds song ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ from Ecclesiastes? ‘A time to laugh, a time to cry, a time for everything.’
Gitai: Exactly. There are much more direct ways to influence the reality — politics, machine guns. I don’t think that we filmmakers should conceive of our trade as one of these things. You cannot force your opinion. You have to be patient. And trust your audience. They will read into it. Books and ideas have changed human history. So I think it’s a long-term investment. It means your [films] will sink in the minds of the people who see them, they will maybe trouble some gentle spirits, they will pose questions. If the work is complex and people face it with an honest and open manner, people will have to work out solutions
SF360: In conclusion, is it hard to be in San Francisco now with what’s going on back home?
Gitai: It is hard. We’re watching day and night, waiting for friends to call.
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