Amos Gitai, 68, is a legendary filmmaker. He’s been making movies for almost 50 years and has 65 credits as a director. He’s had more invitations to show his work at the Cannes Film Festival than any other Israeli director.
I spoke with him at the 2019 Jerusalem Film Festival, which had a special screening of a newly restored copy of his first dramatic feature, Berlin-Jerusalem (1989). Gitai grew up in Haifa, the son of immigrant parents, and attended the elite Reali School. “My father was a great architect, a student of the Bauhaus,” he says. “He was a pupil of Mies van der Rohe and Kandinsky. He came to Palestine in the ‘30s, and he died when I was still a soldier.”
Gitai served in the Golan Heights on a rescue helicopter during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an experience he depicts in his film Kippur (2000).
His chopper was shot down and the co-pilot was decapitated next to him. Gitai was injured. He says that near-death experience influenced his later work as a filmmaker.
“When you’re in those situations, either it cracks you and you’re lost -- and I know several people that happened to -- or you lose fear. And then you can do a lot of good things.”
“When I finished my training in the army I didn’t know what to do. Studying architecture was a way to talk to my dead father. So I got my diploma at the Technion and then I did a master’s and PhD at Berkeley. And when I finished collecting all the academic degrees, which took about nine years, I decided to make movies.”
Why filmmaking rather than architecture, after investing so many years in study?
“First of all, architecture is a bit formal. There’s only so much that you can express. This country deserves a strong cinema that’s engaged with it… and sometimes critical. In a way, I think that the best homage an artist can make to the country that he loves is to be critical.”
He never went to film school.
“I like the freedom I have not being indoctrinated by any academic institution. Just to do what I feel like -- what touches me, what pisses me off -- which are basically the reasons I make a movie. I think this liberty is a great privilege.”
His early films were documentaries, starting with House, which he made in 1980 when he was 30. It tells the story of a home in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood which belonged to a Palestinian doctor until it was expropriated in 1948 and became home to Jewish immigrants from Algiers.
He knew little about filmmaking initially. His mother had given him his first film camera, and he used it to shoot footage from his helicopter during the war.
His mother also gave him advice about how to get started: “If you have to do something you don’t know, just take the best.”
“So I took a great French director of photography who did La Belle et la Bête with Cocteau, who worked with Chaplin and Abel Gance. I took a sound engineer who worked with Godard. I asked Pina Bausch to do the choreography of one of the scenes. I was kind of an apprentice, teaching myself.”
“Basically, cinema, like architecture, is teamwork. It’s very nice that the director is getting a lot of the glory, but the truth is that sometimes the idea comes from the driver, or the set designer, or the director of photography, or the actresses or actors. So you have to have the faculty to listen. And at the same time, you have to make decisions.”
“I learned this when I was a teenager. I went with my father to construction sites. He didn’t want to over-impress me. So he just showed me how he would talk to a mason or to a carpenter and how in order to make a good building he needed the participation of all these people.”
“Filmmaking isn’t like writing a text or standing in front of a canvas, painting. You need to motivate, mobilize, inspire, and direct a group of people to get the best out of all of them.”
An Exposed Nerve
House was rejected by the Israeli public television network, though it earned him a reputation at international film festivals.
“I think the film, which is very quiet film, touched an exposed nerve, which is a delicate matter. The ‘nerve’ is that Israelis have been teaching themselves to assume they are the only ones who deserve space on this piece of land.”
Gitai’s 1982 film Field Diary was also controversial, and shortly afterward he left Israel to live in France.
“Sometimes people follow in my footsteps and decide to leave Israel. They misread what happened to me. I couldn’t get work because of the films which were sensitive. But it became a gradual decision. It’s not like I decided in advance. I was invited for a few weeks to show my films in France. This few weeks became seven years.”
He returned to Israel in 1993 after Yitzchak Rabin was elected Prime Minister and the Oslo accords had been signed.
“I think there was a spirit of openness and moderation. There were also a great hopes that finally this eternal conflict would calm down. And I wanted to be a part of it. The return to Israel was very constructive for the films I did.”
The political environment for artists had changed as well.
“Shulamit Aloni instructed the public television network to reemploy me.”
Aloni (Meretz) was Minister of Education under Rabin and later became Minister of Communications and of Science and Culture.
“She said to the network, ‘You blocked the road of Amos Gitai for no reason. You should reintegrate him.’ At this point I had already done things that people took notice of at different events worldwide. She thought it was good for the country to have somebody like me.”
During this period, Gitai made acclaimed films like Kippur and Kadosh (1999) and worked with actors like Juliette Binoche and Natalie Portman.
“Unfortunately, just a couple years after I came back, as we all know, Rabin was assassinated.”
Gitai made a docu-drama about the event: Rabin, the Last Day (2015).
A Tramway in Jerusalem
Although Gitai still lives in Haifa when he’s not at his second home in Paris, many of his films are set in the Israeli capital – including the recent multi-lingual anthology, A Tramway in Jerusalem (2018).
“A lot of my friends live in Tel Aviv, and I spend time in Tel Aviv, and the Tel Avivians don’t like Jerusalem. I actually like Jerusalem. Because it’s a very dense story. Very divided. It always was divided. Politicians will tell you that it was unified forever but that’s nonsense.”
“The charm of the city i