Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai talks about traversing the borderline between fact and fiction.
Few have explored on the silver screen the ethos of contemporary Israel, anti-Semitism and the West Asian crisis more than Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai. With films such as ‘Free Zone,’ ‘Kedma,’ ‘Alila,’ and ‘Kippur,’ Gitai has crafted a style of filmmaking that has been inspired by reality and which traverses the borderline between fiction and non-fiction. Born in Haifa, Israel, an architect by profession and a veteran of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Gitai was recently in Thiruvananthapuram for the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). Excerpts from an interview…
You normally frequent major festivals such as Cannes and Venice, and not much of smaller festivals such as IFFK….
I like to alternate. The likes of Cannes and Venice have their own charm and operate on a much more commercial level with lots of stars, glamorous parties, paparazzi… the works. IFFK is much more endearing, intimate. This is my second time at IFFK. In 1997, I was here as a jury member. What is most heartening about IFFK is the large number of youngsters, genuine movie lovers, who are interested and willing to continue the work of cinema. Culture is a chain. If we loose one link we loose everything. Cinema is being menaced by politics and commercial culture. It is up to local festivals like IFFK to keep the links together and the momentum going.
Wherever you go you make films, are you planning one here too…
Anything is possible. I have been travelling around and I like the scale of the place. India, especially Kerala, has a very conducive atmosphere for make films…so much enthusiasm.
You have a PhD in architecture from UCLA, Berkley, your father Munio Weinraub, was one of the pioneer architects in Israel. What made you turn from the family enterprise of designing buildings to filmmaking?
I was drafted into the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and was badly injured when a missile hit the helicopter I was travelling in. I managed to capture the war on my Super-8 mm camera, which later became the documentary ‘Images of War 1.2.3’ (1974). Gradually it sank into me that I had to leave my profession and speak up about the troubling issues of the West Asia: ongoing war, politics, persecution…in a more direct way than architecture. I wanted it to be through an art form and cinema seemed to be the best, strongest medium. My father, a Bauhaus trained architect, designed the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and many kibbutzes for collective farms. In my time architecture was less interesting than in the age of my father, when they had great concern about the social aspect of architecture.
What was it about cinema that made the same issues different with regards to architecture?
Both architecture and cinema have aesthetics, form and shape which you can mould to the best possible advantage, but cinema has the additional tools of content and narrative, which lends to the subject in question, a sense of urgency, immediacy and reality. It allows you to experiment more and deal with tougher questions and that too through a form of art.
You were drafted into the war in 1973, yet it was not until a couple of decades years later that you made ‘Kippur’ (2000)…
The war left an indelible mark on me. I had been shot in the back and was hospitalised for a long time. All in all it was a nightmarish experience, which I just wanted to forget. I had no wish to replicate or analyse at that time. In fact until ‘Kippur’ was made very few of my friends knew about my past trauma. While I was filming ‘Kippur,’ one of my assistant directors came up to me and told me ‘Amos you chose a very expensive way to do psychoanalyses’ (laughs). Twenty years later I felt detached enough to articulate it.
How differently did you approach ‘Images of War 1.2.3’ and ‘Kippur’…
The first was my own impressions of the war while in the latter I tried to articulate the same in the form of fiction.
While you were in exile in Paris in the mid 80’s, you made a documentaries such as ‘Ananas’ about marketing pineapples, ‘Brand New Day,’ which followed Annie Lennox and Eurhythmics as they toured Japan and ‘Bangkok-Bahrain’ about human trafficking. These were obviously topics on globalisation way before globalisation became a phenomenon…
It all started with a can of tinned ‘Dole’ pineapples. I just happened to glance at the label and it said ‘produced in Phillipines, packaged in Honolulu, distributed in San Francisco and printed in Japan.’ Isn’t that the perfect microcosm of interdependence? What better subject would I get to make a film on the vibrancy of the Third World? Because ‘Ananas’ was well received, the other two got made.
Most of your films are trilogies…..
West Asia is suffering a lot from the single-minded, schematic presentations; either black or white. So it is always good to make a complex of three films about each thematic. It is like a musician would make variations of the same piece to give more facets to the same thing.
You are said to be most critical about your own people, your identity as an Isreali…
It is always fair to start with your own people, isn’t it? Besides it is too nationalistic and simplistic to start by criticising others, although I do have a lot of criticism to say about them as well. As for my Israeli identity, the flag has a place and should be given its due but it should not be the be all and end all of everything. We all have multiple identities and should present ourselves accordingly.
You are regarded to be more sympathetic to ‘the other’ than to ‘the self’….
Not necessarily. But I think it is my objective to explain to my own people about ‘the other’ to eradicate hatred. You have to understand your adversary even if you disagree with him. If you don’t want conflict to perpetuate you have to explain to people that the divisions existing between countries also exist within societies. I think the people who do not want peace in the Middle East are not just on one side, they exist in both societies and unfortunately they seem to work together quite well to sabotage advancement. If there is a coalition of the evil, there is also a coalition of the good. You have to show people the complex and contradictory nature of this arrangement.