I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
With his new film Kippur, eminent Israeli director Amos Gitai plunges into the chaos of war, its exhausting senselessness, its rupture. Drawn from his own experiences in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Gitai filmed Kippur on location in the Golan Heights during peacetime, and then released the film in Israel on the Yom Kippur holiday. He had hoped the film’s release would coincide with a final peace treaty; instead, September 9th of the year 2000 marked the 11th day of renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians. We met in New York, where Gitai was presenting Kippur at the New York Film Festival and starting work on his new film, a project based on a short story by Arthur Miller. Gitai mentioned that he’d been fielding endless requests from French newspapers for commentary on the situation in the Middle East. Unlike in the US, where only his most recent films, Kadosh and Kippur, have been commercially distributed, Gitai is well known in France, where he lived for many years and is respected both as a public intellectual and for his 20-year career in documentary and feature film. Gitai, not wanting to make any more commentary on breaking news, responded, “That’s the job of a statesman.” As a filmmaker, his job requires reflection and perspective, the ability to distill themes and meaning that transcend moment and place. Newspapers and public officials represent war in terms of nations, movements, maneuvers, and negotiations—it’s the systemic dehumanizing of violent conflict that we require in order to proceed with our daily lives. Great films about war focus instead on the struggle for survival of single characters, of individuals. Gitai humanizes in canny and unexpected ways, through a carefully constructed cinematic language that builds from within, relying on light and silence and space. His miraculous 1999 film Kadosh , about two sisters in a small Orthodox community in Jerusalem, reveals the conflict between this insular, anachronistic, ritual-bound world and the “world outside,” but also moves deeply into the conflicts within that community. Kippur takes us to the front lines, 27 years ago, and puts us like angels on the shoulders of a small band of inadvertent heroes. But the immediate resonance of Kippur is just one aspect of its impart, for kingdoms and borders shift and disappear, and they will continue to do so along with the violence they drag in their wake. In Amos Gitai’s rendering of conflict, the sunset over the Golan Heights isn’t bloody, it’s exquisite.
Minna Proctor Watching Kippur made me think about war films, specifically Terrence Malick’sThe Thin Red Line, which got me thinking about the genius dialogue in his first film, Badlands. I was busy comparing what Malick does with dialogue with what you do with light, shape, and space when it occurred to me that I don’t have the slightest idea what you do with dialogue, because your work is in Hebrew. Can you characterize your dialogue for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew?
Amos Gitai Kippur and Kadosh are different, but they are two distinct models of what I like to do with dialogue. In Kadosh I continued something I often do with language, which is to mix archaic biblical and contemporary Hebrew. For thousands of years Hebrew was strictly restricted to theological use. It’s only been used as a modern language for about a hundred years. Hebrew has taken this immense leap from an archaic language, almost like Latin or Ancient Greek, to a language people might use in discotheques or in taxies. Those tensions are really interesting. In Kadosh, I mixed very high, religious kinds of texts with with much more elastic, contemporary dialogues. Kippur is different because I wanted to restrict the dialogue during the battle scenes to a functional use because in those situations that’s how people speak.
MP They don’t talk at all in the helicopter.
AG No, the noise levels in battle, from helicopters or tanks or explosions, are such that you actually cannot hear. So when you do talk, you shout and it has to be quick and precise. That’s why I find war films with extensive, reflective dialogues ridiculous. The only time you need to have reflective text is in the evening, when the sound level goes down and the people are not so tense and under fire.
MP In the middle of Kippur there’s a quiet scene back at the barracks. There’s war before and after that one quiet evening when all the characters get a chance to talk. It falls in the center of the film, though it doesn’t feel like the film’s core.
AG No, the film is really pulled together by this progression of the process of evacuation. I was an architect originally, and I think of fictional work as architectural in the sense that you have to construct an image out of the void. Maybe the most complicated project in Kippur was to compose chaos. That’s almost a contradiction because chaos is irregular and uncontrollable. How can you construct a chaotic image in a fictional situation and still be able to film it and get it on the screen? That might have been the most challenging question I had to deal with. The documentaries are not so architectural, though. The process is not about construction—it’s more archeological in that it’s like digging into an existing image and excavating its layers.
MP I’ve read that you make that distinction, documentary being like archeology, feature films more like architecture, because of how you construct the imagery. In Kadosh and Kippuryou’re building a fiction, but both films are based on real events—Kippur is based on your own life.
AG I think that’s secondary, because a lot of existing fictional work, except some science fiction, or fantasy, or cartoons, is based in some way or another on events, or the distillations of something that happened. This edge between fiction and documentary is an interesting one, but I think the two mediums should keep their distinctions. I’m not into diffusing the boundary between fiction and documentary. You can use a certain documentary technique or method in a fiction film, but it’s good to articulate when we’re shooting a real context, a reality, and when we’re shooting a fictional enactment of that reality.
MP In the middle section of Kippur, Ruso reads aloud a newspaper report that sounds so alien to what we’ve been witnessing on the front. Now, even here in America we’re getting blow-by-blow reports on violence in the Middle East. Is there a shift from then to now in how the public experiences the conflict?
AG The Yom Kippur War mobilized a lot of the civilian sector, because Israel’s standing army is not very big. When the reserves are called in it has a real impact—schools and banks shut down, for example, because people leave their regular occupations to go to war. But another dimension is that the Yom Kippur War was the first war to be reported on television. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, was against television covering the conflict—probably rightly so—and so Israel started late. In 1973, we only had black-and-white television, and sporadic reports from the war zones. I think the Israelis have learned to live—and almost prefer—a kind of schizophrenic existence, where the civilian sector functions normally while the army is engaged in war. Things couldn’t have lasted this long without that separation.
MP The idea of that separation makes me think of one reviewer’s comments on the possible numbing effect of the violence in Kippur on the audience—that rather than provoke repulsion or horror, the film might have the opposite effect and make the audience shut down. I didn’t shut down at all, but I’m curious how you dealt with that possibility when you made the film.
AG It took me 27 years to make this film. I think what was important, finally, in addition to writing it, was establishing a point of view. I cannot make a film without a point of view. Obviously, some people can, but I cannot be strictly functional—moving cameras and so on. I need to be involved somehow. I think the point of view I finally decided on carries this effect: it never leaves the human face. When we’re in the car, the camera is at eye level. We see the war as the characters see it through the window of the car. We don’t try to shoot objectively. Obviously I could have placed the camera on the outside when Ruso and Weinraub first encounter the Syrian bombardment on the Golan, but we see it through their frame. I could have done an aerial shot of the car in the mess of explosions. But no, we follow the same process of absorption into the war, as these guys do. And when we’re in the helicopter, we see their faces. Then we composed these rather complicated sequence shots in which sometimes they are very near the camera and then the same shot follows them going into the battlefield, carrying the wounded, and then coming back to the helicopter—all the while with us following them. In that way, the camera always stays at eye level. We track the way the characters absorb the images. The most technically complicated shot is when the helicopter explodes, because I really wanted to shoot the explosion from the interior and this is almost never done. Generally, you’d see a kind of maquette of the helicopter exploding, and have the camera on the outside.
MP I read a discussion about that scene in which you make a distinction between a visual and physical effect. Can you elaborate?
AG A physical effect is something you see visually on the site. It’s not a simulated situation. We put a real helicopter on the Golan, not in a studio in front of a blue screen to be digitally mastered. Technology now allows us to manipulate the images and to insert special effects. That’s often how it’s done, but I wanted to avoid that. I wanted everything you see to be real physical effects that I had filmed. I didn’t want any second generation digital manipulation of the images. You can see when something has been manipulated. In the Normandy scene inSaving Private Ryan, Spielberg inserted the fleet, or something else, and that weakened the scene for me. I found an English group who did explosions, magicians of special effects—they’d worked with Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket and they did some James Bond films, too—and they came over to the Golan and did that explosion.
MP You had to give instructions through a commanding officer in the war scenes, because the tank drivers were soldiers and would only answer to an officer. Those drivers had to be soldiers, because the tanks are the property of the Israeli army. Both of you said that this movie could only have been shot during peacetime, but the officer said that if the war were to start again that his boys were going to be going out there for real. Are they at war?
AG Some of them.
MP Propaganda aside, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a pro-war film, but there are patriotic films. There are films meant to inspire ideas of heroism, certainly there are ideas of heroism in Kippur, though I wouldn’t call it a pro-war film. Rather, it’s being billed as a pacifist film, an anti-war film. Is that the right way to read it?
AG If pacifism is what’s drawn from the repulsion produced by war, then Kippur is a pacifist film. In an area like the Middle East, I wouldn’t ask either side, Israeli or Arab, to disarm unilaterally, because unfortunately it’s a region where people still feel they can only achieve their goals by rapport de force. They still haven’t arrived at the conclusion that you can save lives and resources by making the same negotiations with peaceful means. Essentially, I’m against killing, or being killed. If that’s pacifism, it is a pacifist film.
MP Is it satisfying to have such a strong statement about war out in the world right now?
AG I was hoping that the Middle East would have reached a state of exhaustion by now, because I’m becoming more and more skeptical about people’s intelligence being enough of a motivator to reach agreement. I’ve come to believe that exhaustion and fatigue is what will draw them to finally extend their hands—when they’re immobilized, stuck somewhere, they’ll finally realize that war isn’t the best way to use their resources. But there are a lot of forces at work, apparently, and there’s always a strange geometry of coalitions who want to keep on fighting.
MP People hang on to their ideas.
AG Coalitions are the real problem. I think Yitzak Rabin was killed by a coalition. You had the Islamic Jihad and Hamas bombing Israeli civilian centers, and by doing that they delegitimized the moderate Israeli government, and that sent a right-wing Jewish Israeli out to kill Rabin. And with the present situation, Sharon wants to steal the evening news from Netanyahu, and he set his sights on the mosques. He’s questioning Arab sovereignty over their own mosques, and in return the Arabs question Israeli sovereignty over Israeli-owned cities. The Right and the extremists on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides become strong coalitions that work so smoothly you could sell them with a money-back guarantee.
MP Do you think that as an artist you have a special perspective on the situation? The press is calling you for comments—is that because you made this film, or because you’re a public figure?
AG I’ve gained the reputation over the years, and through my films, of being an independent thinker. The Israelis didn’t help most of my films; sometimes they even blocked them, which didn’t make things easy. But ever since I came out of that helicopter alive, I decided to say what I think. And apparently, some people want to hear it. Though as I was saying before, I’m not crazy about giving immediate commentary on current events because I’m not a statesman, and I think immediate answers can make a very dangerous box for a filmmaker.
MP Are you representing Israel as a filmmaker, or are you just representing your own work? What’s your investment in place?
AG I do represent my work, but I was born in Israel and I have affectionate relations with that place, and sometimes disagreements with it. I maintain my right to have both emotions.
MP Some of your work has been refused funding by the state-supported Israeli film board, and you just said some of it’s been blocked. Do you consider these reactions a form of censorship?
AG In some ways, yes. But it’s not only for political reasons. It’s a mixture of politics, rivalry between filmmakers, the country itself not having decided what kind of cinema it should or shouldn’t help. There are several issues at stake, it’s not a clear-cut situation. Nor is it unique. The National Endowment for the Arts in this country has applied similar politics. In Eastern Europe it’s been even more severe.
MP People here call it censorship when something doesn’t get funded. I’m not entirely convinced by that terminology, but I wouldn’t know how it applies where state funding is par-for-the-course.
AG I can only explain how it operates, the etiquette we give it is a secondary question.
MP You feel free at this point.
AG I’ve always felt free. I did what I wanted, even if I was censored, or without funding. I’ve always felt free; otherwise I wouldn’t have done the films.
MP You’re in New York working on a new film based on Arthur Miller’s short story “The Homely Girl.” I call Miller an “old fashioned” writer and what I mean by that is there are those American writers, like Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller, who’ve taken political positions. But that’s not very contemporary. Artists are more likely to be political about art than about politics. Do you see the artist as having political responsibility?
AG I think that cinema, and other forms of art, have become a commodity. We aim to a market situation; there are smooth marketing agents, people who push their products, because after all it’s a product and people want to sell it. This situation is financially rewarding for some of the people involved, but I think it’s very confusing to the artists themselves—whether they’re actors who get zillions, or whether they’re directors, the creative people. The Middle East has a lot of disadvantages—the governments don’t support films, or they treat filmmakers badly and you get called names, and all sorts of unpleasant things. The one very positive thing it does offer is a context. Here in America I think that context, as you suggested, has disappeared, faded away. It’s not surprising to me that a lot of good works of art were done when the context was very charged: artwork by Goya or Velazquez, or certain texts, even Joyce, wouldn’t exist under less charged circumstances. But I think that the Middle East has almost too much context, which also makes work difficult for some people. On one end, you’re submerged in the events around you and it’s shocking and shakes you up and you feel passionate and disturbed. At the same time, filmmaking is about perspective. Metaphorically, it’s like putting a camera lens too close to something—it goes out of focus. You need to impose perspective. And that’s a very difficult exercise when the event is going on around you, when it’s burning. But to go back to your question: it’s a very politicized situation, which obliges you to take a complex position—to be opinionated without reducing the situation to yesterday’s newspaper.
MP Which you don’t run the risk of with a historical film like Kippur.
AG I have to say that I have happy relations with my films, even House, which I did 20 years ago. They say some things very clearly, they disturb some people, but still they don’t cage themselves into too limited a scope. They age well. I like the anachronism you just mentioned. I’m not even sure that the West will stay in this phase, which is very faded, blasé, nonopinionated. With all the money, glitz, and glamour in the US in the last year, this country has not produced a very strong cinematic culture, unfortunately. Sure, the US dominates the entire world, it destroyed the Italian cinema, and helped destroy some other cinematic cultures, but very few American films are really powerful. For me, the other problem of political attitude is that cinema cannot be reduced to conflict. Didactic cinema is poison. Cinema made for a good cause, where we know the director’s stand—politically we agree with it. But cinematically I deeply disagree, because that kind of approach reduces film.
MP It draws its own parameters.
AG Political cinema is a very complicated business, because you have to maintain the contradictions of the characters you are portraying even if they’re on the adversarial side. In some ways, I sometimes prefer a blasé tone because it doesn’t take on the charge of being political.
MP But you do take on the charge.
AG I take the charge, but look at Kippur, Yom Yom, Devarim, and Kadosh—I think you have to compose ambiguity. You have to compose the whole universe of Orthodox Judaism to show the rhythm, the ritual, even the seduction of ritual, in order to show the contradictions. Cinema is formal, but not only formal. It’s really a tricky equilibrium. I like the imagery to be beautiful, not in a festishized manner, but right. Basically, the right image has its own aesthetic value. I wouldn’t exchange it for some beautiful, symmetrical shot of rows of tanks marching in the perfect order. I like the edgy, uncontrollable sense of war. I’m trying to give a sense of what I look for, but these things are very difficult to articulate.
MP Right is one of those words you can’t find in a cinema textbook.
AG I once asked a famous violin teacher what quality she looked for in a student to make her think he would be a great violinist. I asked, “Is it discipline?”—because it’s obviously a lot of work and you have to suppress desires, and so forth. Is it technical ability? Is it this, is it that? I listed all sorts of options. She said, “It’s all of that. They should have all of those things. But what’s most important is that they desire to have fun.” I think that’s very nice. To all the rational analysis you have to add an irrational property. That’s what makes something human. It’s the same with cinema, painting, music—anything. The one additional thing that will make it touching and strong and so forth.
MP While filming Kadosh the actors studied the Torah at night, and for Kippur you sent them to boot camp. With this kind of preparation, how much does the actor bring to the set? Is there improvisation? Does the script shift as you’re working?
AG The script is only a paper simulation of the film. I feel free to change it at any stage. I’ve already made some changes to the next film, based on the sets I looked at yesterday, and how the space works for the characters.
MP It’s fluid?
AG The word fluid suggests too much openness. There is a structure, and I think the most important thing to establish before you start to shoot—it’s the most complicated thing, too—is the tone, or the mood of the film. These are extremely abstract notions which are difficult to nail down. But still, I think films that have a distinct mood or tone leave a trace in your mind. When the projection is over and the lights come on, that’s when the film starts to really work. You’ve managed to mark a clear tone that carries information, dialogue, particularities about the locations, and so on. But if you don’t establish these tones, and you’re only obsessed with the narrative details, it becomes problematic. You create a bricolage—you can see the patchwork. You have to move swiftly: look at details while looking at the whole. You always have to be doing this back and forth exercise, so you can keep an overall vision of the film. That’s basically what filmmaking is about for me. For each film, you establish a particular sense. With the filmmakers I like—Fassbinder, Rossellini, and Cassavetes—it’s not about the subject so much as the handwriting, which evokes something in you that goes beyond the strength or the weaknesses, or the particularities of the pieces of the film. To me, that’s a successful film.
MP Many reviewers talk about Kadosh and Kippur as representing a kind of movement away from your earlier work. Can you comment on that in your own terms?
AG I think it’s wrong. I would make other kinds of separations—I’m not saying the subdivisions the filmmaker makes are better than those of the observers, because, obviously, I don’t have any advantage over someone else viewing the films.
MP That’s why I’m asking your personal opinion.
AG My early fictional work, including Esther, which is a kind of fantasy biblical tale superimposed on the Arab quarter of Haifa, and Golem, Spirit of Exile, which is set in Paris, and to some extent Berlin Jerusalem, are films where I was interested in the relationship between text and landscape, and the way that you situate the text in the landscape. If the landscape is the destroyed Arab quarter, and you situate a biblical story about persecution there, then the landscape will interpret or will help us read the text as the director would like us to understand it. The sets become a way of reading the text. With the more recent films,Devarim, Yom Yom, Kadosh and Kippur—which coincided time-wise with my going back to Israel to live—the main thing was my growing interest in a dialogue with the actors. AfterDevarim I was more interested in the way that the actor becomes both a vehicle of his own particularity and the role that he’s playing. This group of four films deals with that dimension. Also, those first films, Esther, Berlin Jerusalem, Spirit of Exile, and so on, were photographed by Henri Alekan, one of the greatest European directors of photography. He worked with Cocteau on Beauty and the Beast. He worked with Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, and with Wim Wenders on Wings of Desire. He brought a great knowledge of expressionist lighting, very refined layers of light. Alekan stopped shooting films—he’s in his nineties now—so I started working with Renato Berta, a modernist who works both the light and the camera. The much more minimalist light, and the liberating mise-en-scène complimented my movement into the characters’ personality. I could move people in space with less technical restrictions. These two elements, combined with the fact that I went back to live in Israel, where I felt familiar with the history, with ingredients of the country …
MP Contributed to a shift?
AG To a shift in the register. Obviously Kadosh and Kippur are being distributed on a wider scale, in North America, and in Europe, so people are more acquainted with these two films.
MP Do you think your work is going to change as your audience grows and becomes more international?
AG I don’t know. I was very happily surprised when a lot of people came to see Kadosh. It was a great compliment to me because I didn’t feel that I’d made any compromises; I made the film I wanted to do. I fought everybody who told me to shoot it in English, I shot it in Hebrew in Israel. For coproduction deals they wanted to insert actors from Europe, and so on. But I said I was going to do it strictly with a local cast and it would be great. It gave the opportunity to show that there are really talented actors in Israel. I think that’s the real compliment. You do a film, establish its rhythm, cast, all the particularities, and the film works. It reinforced my stubborn nature. I can keep doing what I really believe in. And I’m not sure it will always work, but from time to time it will.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee