A conversation with Amos Gitai and Marie-José Sanselme
In September 2017, French-Israeli independent film-maker Amos Gitai visited Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design where he led a seminar on “Architecture and Film,” participated in a festival in which three of his films were exhibited, and engaged in multiple conversations with students and faculty concerning aspects of the craft of film-making. What follows is a summary of conversations with CED Emeritus Professor Michael Dear, including a contribution from Marie-José Sanselme, a long–time collaborator of Amos Gitai. The conversations were edited by Michael Dear.
“You cannot make a progressive film within a reactionary form.”
MICHAEL DEAR [MD] — I am interested in understanding your approach to film-making, particularly the ideas and methods that you employ. Let me get straight to the heart of the matter by quoting what seems to be one of your favorite aphorisms: “You cannot make a progressive film within a reactionary form.” What exactly do you mean by that?
AMOS GITAI [AG] — There are many formal options available to film-makers, and all are valid. But each has different advantages and limitations, according to the purposes of the director, the demands of the screenplay, the choice of actors, etc. For me, films become reactionary when they close off conversations, when they omit or stifle different opinions. So when a director spends time adopting a single point of view to the exclusion of all others, then the form itself becomes a reactionary vehicle. In most of my films, I devote a lot of time to presenting alternative perspectives. I think that a film containing multiple viewpoints provides a better opening toward a more progressive film.
MD — You seem careful to leave it open to the viewer to decide about the various perspectives offered in your films.
AG — Yes of course, but it’s a lot more complicated than simply laying out a variety of opinions. For a start, a viewer could guess a lot about my approach to film — and politics — simply by looking at the titles of my films. So let’s take an example, which is both architectural and semi-autobiographical: the frame. A frame is never innocent, meaning that you decide what will be inside the frame but also what will be excluded from it. So all the theorizing about “cinéma vérité” the cinema of the truth, ignores the fact that we are making choices about what to represent, to include or exclude, before filming even begins.
Part of this preparatory work involves research, etc., but more than anything else, before beginning, we need a point of view. We have to establish a point of view but also understand that it will be attacked, watered down, opposed, even destroyed while we continue our journey in film-making. The initial assumption could be a theme; it could relate to a mathematical equation or a building; or it could be political argument. So it’s necessary to start with an assumption, otherwise we’re in a kind of amorphous soup in which everything is permitted. Some film-makers like this ambiguity, and deliberately exploit the ambiguities in their art. But it’s not the way I work.
MD — So your initial assumption is a kind of hypothesis that you adopt to explore the theme. But doesn’t it also run the risk of becoming so open-ended that it dissolves into a kind of ‘anything-goes’ canvas?
AG — Well, yes it is risky, but that is an essential part of the creative process, isn’t it? Whether it’s architecture or film, we need to solicit alternative points of view in order to test the assumption, to determine its validity from multiple perspectives. It’s a very delicate process, and it’s essential to take care not to crush other, divergent viewpoints.
One way to do this is through framing, but also mood, which is less concrete, not so easily measured. It’s more perceptual, cognitive. In both in architecture and cinema, you deal with spaces and images. You create and capture a mood which is a slippery thing, a kind of feeling that will convey or carry an argument, and so on. You install in the back of the spectators’ consciousness a state of mind that will make them receptive to the vast volume of information on the screen: argument, counter-arguments, layers of history. The opposing layers of history presented in the film News From Home, for example, will appeal to your emotion in different ways. One moment, for instance, we are sympathizing with a Palestinian who is suffering from being displaced, losing their house and their homeland, and becoming part of a forced diaspora. The next moment, you are confronted by the anguish of an Israeli family who realize that their new home has been paid for by the dispossession imposed on the original Palestinian owner. Such diversity of perspective — such varied moods — only enrich our experience of the tragic genesis and impacts of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
MD — News From Home is especially powerful and moving in this regard, because it traces the fate of a single house over 25 years of occupancy, first by Palestinians and later by two Israeli families. The first film in the trilogy, House, featured a group of Palestinian stone-cutters who are preparing stone from a quarry. As they carry out the heavy, rhythmic labor (they do not use explosives or mechanized power tools), the viewer experiences the inevitable weight of the changes being imposed on them by the Israelis, whose product will be a new architecture of occupation. The episode is repeated in News from Home, 25 years later, so the stone-cutters establish a framing and a (mournful) mood that carries the entire trilogy. They provide an essential foundation for the narrative. For me, it was like revisiting old friends when they reappeared in the final film, much older but still fiery and embittered.
AG — It’s interesting that you would put it that way. Some of my co-patriots in Israel were disturbed by both films precisely because of the state of mind that it creates. They considered it subversive that the simple Palestinian stone cutter speaks in a rather poetic, sophisticated language while a well-educated Israeli economist, the new owner, is using a rather flat form. In fact, the films don’t say anything we didn’t already know from the daily news, but I created a more egalitarian attitude to all the characters. No-one is snubbed; everyone is treated as a human being with equal rights. Some of my dear countrymen were annoyed by the Stone-Cutters, whom you and I like so much. It seems that the first task is to portray the Other as primitive, uneducated and so on.
“ The best homage you can do for your country is to be critical.”
MD — One of your signature strategies is to undercut the spectator’s complacency, usually by introducing people with conflicting viewpoints or unexpected perspectives. These witnesses are usually extremely articulate in different ways. The juxtapositions of places and people, and themes and times, are obviously deliberate. Your strategy seems to be subversive, to shock the viewer with each new revelation. You even subvert yourself by including viewpoints with which (off-screen) you disagree.
AG — The strategy of a film-maker has to include this kind of subversive attitude in order to undercut what it is to be ‘normal,’ and to draw the spectator into another reality which if looked openly cannot be escaped. In a way that you call ‘didactic,’ the spectator is denied the opportunity to escape, but is obliged to confront the voices and the people, and to digest them. And then they will be able to cross those borders. Basically, that should be part of the strategy of a film-maker.
MD — So in this sense, the subversive film-maker floats above the action in a detached manner — not as a god-like, all-knowing figure, but more as a Greek Chorus amplifying and interpreting the actions of figures in the landscape?
AG — Well, I’m not a guru of any kind! But look, the best homage that we can make to our country is to be critical. Strong cultures don’t need public relations. And even if I’m not religious, my ancestors are Jewish. I often say that if the Jews did not believe in ideas, they would not exist. They survived while great and powerful empires disappeared because they had an idea. But more recently, that idea has been under assault from money and military might.
My mother was secular but she was also a teacher of the Bible. It is not a text about public relations of the religious authorities; it’s a critical text about power. Just to give an example, in the Old Testament, David, the most celebrated king of all, is confronted by the prophet Nathan, who proceeds to chastise the king verbally for his actions. You can read this ancient text as a guide for future generations, saying; Go ahead, criticize authority!
Can you imagine what things were like when this text was written, two-and-half millennia ago? The chief editor of the Bible could have easily taken that story out, and but didn’t, even though he or she was probably being paid by the House of David. Despite this, the challenge to power was preserved in the text. That’s what I’m referring to when I say that if you have affection for the place you were born and grew up in, you must be prepared to be critical when you see that place taking disturbing new directions. This was maybe one reason why, after my return to Israel from Berkeley in the late 1970s, my film House was met by hostility, menace, and law suits.
In retrospect, I probably had to go through all that to become a film-maker, to learn how to defend an idea. It goes back to where we started talking about a point of view, or theme. House was made at a particular time; it has its own rhythm. It was subversive not just in what it was saying about Palestinian property, the negation of rights, and other important issues, but also in the way it was said. House’s form and rhythm allowed viewers to meditate over what was being portrayed even as they were watching. The film did not rush aggressively to manipulate images, but allowed contemplative time and space to form judgments, for or against. Both are legitimate reactions.
"My films have politicized me rather than me politicizing my films."
MD — In 1979 you graduated from Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design with a PhD degree in architecture. But you became a film-maker, not an architect, and pretty soon you were back in Israel making films that upset a lot of Israelis. How did this happen?
AG — I did my military service in 1968 to 1971, and was a reservist during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, while doing my diploma in architecture in the Technion in Haifa. Then starting in 1976, I spent three great years in Berkeley. I studied much more than just architecture. The director of my PhD dissertation, Rosalyn Lindheim, was a lovely human being who exposed me to lots of interesting ideas. I studied the philosophy of science with Paul Feyerabend who was a student of Karl Popper, and who wrote Against Method. I took classes on the Frankfurt School, Karl Marx — about multinationals, the third world, etc. I also spent a lot of time in the beautiful old building of the Pacific Film Archive and the Berkeley Art Museum. I worked as an assistant to the Museum director at the time, David Ross, as well as Tom Luddy. They had me sorting through boxes of old videos. It was really great, and I needed to rest and be stimulated after the Yom Kippur War.
MD — You’ve often said that your politics didn’t set out to make political films, but that making House and later films politicized you.
AG — That’s true. Back in Israel after Berkeley, I decided to do the film that became House.
It took a long time to find all the people who took part in the film, and to get their agreement to appear. And then, as happened several times in my life, my very small personal biography corresponded to some larger historical event in Israel. The Labour Party, which had been in power for 50 years, lost the election to the conservative Likud Party.
I actually started work on House with a very open-minded television director, but now the power had shifted. There’s a new director nominated by the new powers who wants me to cut major parts of the film, especially the voices of the Palestinian worker and the original Palestinian house-owner. In a truly Kafkaesque moment, he said to me: “Okay, we’ll agree to broadcast the film if you interview again the new Israeli owner of the house, and he can tell you about his war experience in 1948.” I agreed. Why not? But then they told him not to do an interview with me, and pretended that they were unaware of the fact they had instructed him not to participate! So anyway, the film was blocked.
MD — That must have upset you?
AG — It did. Little by little, I was feeling disturbed, maybe even a bit shocked by these interventions. But I wasn’t fearful. I didn’t react — in a Soviet manner — by becoming self-critical or blaming myself. I hadn’t committed any crime. But I had entered into a process of learning. Making the film, and dealing with reactions to it, had politicized me.
So now, what were my options? I decided, with some hesitation, to confront the situation. At that time, I was working in California with Pacifica Radio along with a friend of mine, Kevin Gallagher, on a series of programs about the Middle East. While I’m working on it, Israeli television announced that I’d actually made House to sell to the Palestinians. My mother was contacted by a lawyer who told her that if I returned to Israel, I would be arrested. She called me on the West Coast to warn me. After some reflection, I said to her: “I don’t think I’ve committed any crime. If they want to put me to jail, they can put me to jail. I am flying back.” I landed safely, and the menace did not have any substance.
MD — It seems that the political education of Amos Gitai was proceeding very rapidly?
AG — Let me put it this way: I was learning about film-making, but also about strategies of survival. These were all steps in my discovery of politics. But I haven’t got to the end of this story…
So I fly back to Israel. They threaten to sue me for taking the film, showing it to people for which not authorized, stuff like that. My mother introduces me to another lawyer, a big-shot in the Labour Party, who is no help. I change lawyers several times. Then a friend recommends Victor Hazzan, a right-wing lawyer who specializes in copyrights. We meet. Hazzan tells me in no uncertain terms that my politics are all wrong, but adds that because I had not signed any formal contract with the television people, I owned the film and could do what I liked with it. Then Hazzan goes to the top television guy in Jerusalem and gives him the same message.
This was another step in my discovery of politics. I still laugh (at myself) when I recall the experience. I went into the film thinking that the left-leaning guys are the only good guys, and right wing… Well, it was a revelation, right? Hazzan was first and foremost a really competent lawyer, doing his job with great skill.
“There is no harm in having knowledge.”
MD — Let’s fast-forward 25 years. The third film in your House trilogy, News From Home, includes people and events from the two earlier films as well as an update on their lives, plus the voices of the most recent Israeli occupants of the house. It has some powerful anti-Israeli statements pertaining to the dispossession of the original Palestinian owners and their diaspora from the now-Israeli neighborhood. It also deals with the guilt felt by many Israelis who are aware of the circumstances surrounding how they came to occupy the previously-Palestinian community. The film covers a vast space and time, as well as diverse perspectives on the house, neighborhood and national interests. I was not aware of any attempt to be ‘fair and balanced’ in your story-telling. There’s a much more ‘organic’ feel to the narrative, which feels just right.
AG — This particular chapter was about the diaspora of the Palestinians. Some of the process in filming is intuitive. Not everything is, how shall I say, cerebral. And the editing sessions are intense and exhausting, mentally. I edited the film over a two-year period. And then, at some point, it’s done, and that’s it. You cannot continuously tinker with it because that way you simply lose it. So it’s important to know when to stop.
You also need a bit of luck, and intuition. News From Home engages a big chunk of the complexity in Israeli-Palestinian relations, but does so on a particular street and house, with a small selection of people. I didn’t invent them. The film depends on the real configuration of the setting, subject and the figures in the landscape. You need a bit of intuitive luck to succeed. Even the name of the street Dor Dor Vedorshav, which means literally “Each generation and its masters” is a kind of gift offered by reality to an attentive film-maker.
MD — Another aspect is the sense of place in your films. You don’t just present a parade of talking heads, but characteristically, we join you on a filmed journey to the place where the person lives. We witness the congested roads, experience the checkpoints, endure the volatile cross-examinations, and feel oppressed by the settlements and fortifications along the West Bank, Jerusalem, and so on. It’s like an odyssey.
AG — Well, even for fiction films, sometimes I choose the site before I do the casting of the characters. My first film, which uses the biblical texts of Esther, is entirely shot in the ruins of the Palestinian section of my city, Haifa, which has all these beautiful palaces in ruin. So you have two layers in reading the film: narrative and memory. You see the ruins, which play to the illusion that these are the palaces of the King of Persia. But your mind is also continuously trying to work out their relation to the narrative with Esther.
Basically, if I have to summarize the story of Esther in one sentence, it’s the story about people who are persecuted, but who then become new persecutors. So the allegory is clear. I constructed the film like a series of Persian miniatures, shooting it in a ruined Arab-Palestinian architectural site, which gives the viewer another layer of interpretation. So the films are multilayered projects, and the choice of site is essential.
MD — You often remind listeners that you are not now a practicing architect but you have an architectural education up to the doctoral level, your father was a prominent architect in Israel, and you have practiced in the past as an architect. You are fluent in speaking architecture, and in your films, I sense a highly choreographed approach to time and space. This is especially evident in the long, single-take shots that are such a common element in your film vocabulary, as in your short film, The Book of Amos, which is a single-take in its entirety. Why do you use it so much?
AG — Because it allows the spectator to do two things: to see a continuous space uninterrupted by editing; and independently to relate the different components of composition and narrative. It’s part of my tacit contract with the spectator. You don’t get distracted by an edit, an excision, or an altered point of view; instead, you’re exposed to the complete continuity of this space, in the here and now.
MD — Like many of your works, The Book of Amos takes its inspiration from the Old Testament, yet you are a secular person. Is there any contradiction here?
AG — Look, there is no harm in having knowledge. These are really interesting texts written by people, not by a god. They tell us a lot of things, and they’re a part of the heritage of humanity. Pasolini, Glauber Rocha, and many others worked with these texts, and I think they were right to do so. Otherwise, we reduce our capacity to act on cultural heritage only to what is available now. And present-day culture is becoming more flat, more narrow; it should be challenged. Also, in a very practical way, knowledge of the Old Testament allows me to answer my Orthodox critics because I know the references. I could not have made the film Kadosh without knowing about the Talmud, about the Kabbalah. When you don’t know, they have the upper hand. I think ignorance is not helpful.
Let me put it another way. I worked a lot with the wonderful French screen actress Jeanne Moreau, and I remain deeply saddened by her recent death. When we were discussing the possibility of working together, she told me: “Listen, I will do only a project when I can learn something that I don’t already know.” This is very different from a lot of actresses, actors, poets, painters and other artists who prefer to do only what they know. Jeanne Moreau and I challenged each other to learn more, which is what made the works possible.
“There is no formula for my film-making.”
MD — I’ve been trying to piece together what constitutes the Amos Gitai ‘method’ of film-making. By this I mean the principles or techniques that you generally bring to most if not all your projects. You’ve told me that you don’t have a ‘formula’ but several ideas keep cropping up in our conversations, including (for instance) form, site, frame, mood, text, narrative, scale, landscape – all suggestive of the ‘raw materials’ you use in creating films. There’s also a second group of words relating to how these basic materials are combined to produce a finished film: choreography, rhythm, interpretation, and the like. This second group seems to refer to the actual process of scripting, composing the action, editing, and so on; I could perhaps call this the ‘dialectics of production.’
The simplest way to put this (for my benefit rather than yours!) is that I am asking how you gather your ‘ingredients,’ and which ‘recipe’ you use to come up with a finished ‘cake,’ in your case, a finished film.
AG — Well, I don’t claim to be a chef, not even in the French-language sense!
MD — I’m not suggesting that you’re a cook, or a chief. I’m asking if these key words that I culled from your classes and conversations add up to a philosophy of film-making?
AG — I understand you, my friend, but you are not describing the way I work. First of all, I tend to resist attempts to categorize me or my work. You know me well enough to realize that intuition and serendipity play important parts in my work habits; things happen in the world around me, and I respond. Also, you know that I am very collaborative in everything I do; all my collaborators bring something different to the film when they participate in what you called the dialectics of production. None of them are true believers, swearing allegiance to the ‘Gitai method,’ because there is no such animal.
Second of all, I respond better to the critical assessments of others, rather than spending time documenting my philosophy, or poring over categories. There’s a great French critic, Jean-Michel Frodon, who wrote that I have ‘phantoms,’ which appear in my earliest works and reappear in the later films. For instance, in my film Kippur (2000), which dealt with my personal experience of the Yom Kippur War, Frodon excavated some of my early Super 8 films and discovered images filmed during that war which had inspired the scenes in Kippur, made decades later. Now, in the early days with my little camera, I was not filming anything dramatic; I was looking for faces, landscapes, impressions. But this was a formative experience for me. It took place in a very dangerous situation — we were in an army helicopter and sometimes came under attack. I felt compelled to articulate it by filming it. Only much later did Frodon’s forensics uncover connections across time in the films, but that’s something I would never been able to articulate for you.
Here’s another example of how I encounter ‘outsider’ knowledge. Nurith Aviv, my camerawoman on my early documentaries once told me that my interviewing style was related to a technique developed by Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst. It was called attention flottante (floating attention). I’d never heard the term until that moment. It works like this: let’s say we would speak. I am not interrogating you, wooing you, or anything like that. In our dialogue I try to go with your flow. Sometimes I’d intervene, but only in ways that provide levels of comfort or confidence that allow you to share with me something that may be deeply buried inside you. Understand that I am not claiming to be a practitioner of this technique, or criticizing it one way or another. I’m simply showing how others have characterized my work — its philosophies, or recipes, if you like — in ways that typically I do not. It’s always interesting to see what people discover in your work.
Michael, I have a feeling these are not the answers you were looking for. Why don’t we get a second opinion?
[Amos picks up his telephone and dials a number in Paris, France, where it is 2 a.m. local time. He is calling Marie-José Sanselme with whom he has worked for decades, principally as screenplay-writer. ]
MD — Marie-José, I’m so sorry that we are calling at this hour. Amos is resisting my invitation to describe the principles behind his film-making. He suggested I should ask your opinion since you have so much experience working with him.
Marie-José Sanselme (MJS) — The key words that come straight to my mind when I reflect on working with Amos are: intuition, biographies, and freedom.
When Amos starts a project, he rarely explains why he is interested in an idea. He gives me total freedom to imagine what the story can be, and what the film is about as I approach writing. Then we discuss. I show him my proposals, and he reacts. Very early in our collaboration, I learned that the script-writing phase is only one piece of Amos’ method. He does not consider the screenplay as the film-to-be. It’s only a tool — an important tool, of course — allowing him intuitively to continue thinking about and elaborating the initial idea.
The temporary, contingent nature of the film-making process permeates the whole experience. So, work on developing the screenplay continues during later stages of filming, such as casting. The choice of actors by Amos is a very important moment, but so is location scouting, because both actor and landscape become ‘characters’ in his films. Needless to say, he chooses people because they are good actors, but he also casts non-actors. What interests him at this stage of film-making is the quality of the dialogue he can have with his actors beyond the film, including their personal biographies. Some of this detail is sometimes absorbed into the film itself. In Free Zone, for example, Natalie Portman was surprised by how many elements of her biography and thinking found their way into the film.
As the process of film-making unfolds, Amos persists in contemplating what he wants, and why he’s doing it. These explorations continue while he’s shooting, editing, and until the very last phases, even to the point of subtitling. He resists anything that he perceives to be as an imposed rule that could block the film’s progress. This insistence on a kind of radical freedom means that the task of elaborating the film’s meaning is never finished. Of course, the film-making has to stop at some point, because the film is being released, etc. But the questioning and the interrogations go on. This perhaps explains why the themes he chooses are re-articulated throughout many films over decades of film-making. It also explains why there are so many trilogies in the Gitai catalogue!
“You have to challenge the idea of borders.”
MD — Can you both talk more about how intuition, biography, and freedom work in practice? Shall we stay focused on the Border Trilogy: Promised Land (2004), Free Zone (2005), and Disengagement (2009)?
MJS — The first film, Promised Land, was done after Alila (2003), which was a very structured film: 40 sequence shots, an adaptation of a novel, a description of Israel through people living in a certain building south of Tel Aviv. Then suddenly Promised Land exploded into my life. To tell you the truth, even while I was collaborating with Amos on this film, I never knew why he wanted to do it. He was determined to address sex trafficking of women across borders, but I wasn’t sure why that topic came into his mind at that time, except that uppermost in his mind, then and now, is the obscene behavior in certain sectors of Israeli society and politics.
AG — My interest in borders existed long before we undertook the trilogy. The big puzzle about Israel, for me at least, is the presence of people who are not Jewish, not Arab, not Muslim, not Israeli. Anyone who doesn’t fall into the category of being Jewish or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian will not be defended by these dominant groups. My earlier film Alila was already questioning borders by focusing on the presence of migrant workers in Israel. It’s an issue that has become more and more vital, especially now when even peace-loving people start believing that the solution is to build new borders. So, in order to challenge the strict, sacred borders of the Middle East, I decided to do a border trilogy, with each film focusing on a different issue.
Promised Land was about the exploitation of women. As a consequence of the Second Intifada, Israel dramatically reduced the number of Palestinian workers coming from Gaza and the West Bank into Israel. In their place, Israel started importing agricultural workers from Thailand and the Philippines, plus Chinese workers for the construction industry – practices that continue to the present. Parallel to this, criminal networks started bringing in women for the sex trade from Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, Moldavia and elsewhere. They were flown to Egypt, brutalized, and then brought to an Israeli club ironically named ‘Promised Land’ to be sold and distributed to different Israeli cities and some Palestinian areas. The borders in Promised Land are relatively open, easily negotiated and penetrated. The trouble is that trafficked women have no ties with Israeli or Palestinian society, and so have no defenders. They cannot protect themselves against slavery.
MJS — For Promised Land, Amos first gave me a report done by a deputy member of the Israeli Knesset about women forced into sex trafficking. He wasn’t so interested in having a script at this stage, what you would call a real screenplay. But the people who financed the film, a French-German television channel, insisted on seeing one. So I launched into doing a script in the normal way, meaning fictionalizing, adding characters, developing a plot, and so on. But Amos wanted to shoot now, so very little time was left for the writing, and, frankly, I still wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted. But a script got written, and the film still remains a bit mysterious to me. Only later on, retroactively, I realized that Amos was making this film during the last days of his mother Efratia, who all her life had been a great advocate of women’s rights. So one can even say that intuitively Amos wanted to dedicate his film dealing with the injustices done to women to his mother, even without being conscious of it. His mother died on the last day of shooting for Promised Land.
MD — The second film of the trilogy, Free Zone, was released only a year later?
MJS — That’s right, Free Zone came next, but it was a very different film. Like Promised Land, Free Zone was done in a kind of a state of emergency. Amos wanted to contradict the official story that borders in the Middle East had been sealed and secured. That just wasn’t true. There was trade, communication, travel, people crossing borders every day.
AG — Free Zone challenged ideas about borders in a different way. It’s the story of a journey from Israel into Jordan. The driver is an Israeli woman named Hanna (played by Hana Laslo, who won Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for this role), and she is accompanied by a female passenger who is American (Rebecca, played by Natalie Portman), bereft after a broken marriage. The narrative focuses on their trip to the Jordan Valley ‘free zone,’ where all sorts of cross-border commercial transactions take place. There, Hanna the driver is meeting a Palestinian woman (Leila, played by the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass) who owes her money.
The story reveals what ordinary people have to endure every day, and how they construct cross-border lives that enable them to survive. In the final scene, the scheduled transfer of money fails to materialize. Leila and Hanna become locked in a bitter, solipsistic argument. The American woman, Rebecca, frustrated by the pair’s intransigence, jumps out of Hanna’s vehicle and runs recklessly toward the Israeli border checkpoint. Her action is meant to symbolize the dismissive attitudes of foreign powers toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rebecca seems to be saying: “Okay, the two of you want to fight forever? Go ahead. Have fun. Kill each other. I have other things to take care of.”
MJS — The third film in the trilogy, Disengagement, was first inspired by Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities, a book which is a continuous source of interest for Amos. Then the forced evacuation of Israeli settlers from Gaza by the Israeli army and police took place. Amos’ son, Ben, was at the time doing his military service, and he suggested that his father should witness the evacuation. Amos had to cross many barriers to observe the removal of the settlers. Later, he told me that this experience would be part of the film. Then it took us a long time to figure out what else was needed for the film.
We worked very hard on that script, maybe seventeen versions of the screenplay. Sometimes the work was so intense and urgent that I became confused about what was going on. It’s only later, when I return to the film, that I find myself thinking again about that word ‘freedom.’ Amos was interested in representing the complexity of the situation created by those Israeli settlements, and of the settlers with whom he disagreed politically. Yet on a human level, he empathized with the emotional disruption they were experiencing. I realized too that the mother-daughter relationship (which is so moving in the film) also references the attachment of Israeli settlers to faith and territory.
“Let’s just hope for the best.”
MD — You’ve spent a large part of your career addressing the contradictions and challenges confronting the state of Israel since its inception. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
AG — Well, I’m a collector of contradictions, as you know. Truthfully, I don’t have the answers, but by instinct I tend toward optimism. I’ll tell you another story.
In our Haifa home, we live on the fourth floor. On the third floor, there are two couples. One leans left on political issues; he’s a lawyer. Next door is a conservative Sephardic rabbi of the Carmel, a nice guy. His wife is a darling; when my wife is sick, she brings a cup of soup, stuff like that. One weekend some years ago, on a Friday, the rabbi said to me: “I would like to invite you to have the Shabbat meal with us.” I said, “Okay.” But he was a bit worried about me, regarding me as materialistic, secular, this and that. I told him to set aside that way of thinking because secular people have values, too. He thought a bit, and then said, “Okay. You know what? Please come.”
I spoke to his children during the meal. I respected his wishes, in the same way that I would respect the practices in a Buddhist temple. And from time to time after that, he invited me again because he wanted me to open his children’s eyes to what was happening outside. He did not try to convert me and I had no wish to convert him.
So let’s just hope for the best. Why not?
Collage images top to bottom, left to right (Unless otherwise noted, images originally published in Amos Gitai 5 Films, Olivier Poivre d’Arvor et al., Culturesfrance, 2010):
Laurent Truchot, Ronit Elkabetz, Noam Eisenberg, Amos Gitai, Pini Clavier, Uri Klauzner, Saul Prosper, Marie-José Sanselme and Renato Berta, shooting Alila, 2003
Juliette Binoche in Disengagement, 2007
Mohamad Said El Arj in House, 1980
Free Zone, 2005 (screenshot)
The Book of Amos, 2014 (screenshot)