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 is that it’s fragmented. It’s a mosaic of different cultures. And in the best case, they can live next to each other. It’s a big hub which inspired humanity for good reasons. It’s a great city.”
“My mother was a non-religious teacher of the Bible. From my childhood she made me appreciate the Old Testament. I still do. It’s a great book. It’s much less religious than people think. It’s not just stories. It’s ethics and philosophy and a good critique of power.”
“It is in the DNA of Jewish tradition to be critical. The Bible puts on record that the most mighty and celebrated King, David, was immoral. He desired Bathsheba, and to have her he sent her husband to die in the war.”
“So what does the chief editor of the Bible, she or he, 3000 years ago want to instill? That when power is corrupt and immoral it deserves to be criticized. And that’s very important. Don’t be deterred. Don’t be afraid. The attachment to truth and the critique of power is embedded in this culture.”
“People who think that it’s all about the mitzvahs and what’s kosher and non-kosher… for me that’s not the essence. The essence is the profound ethics. I think that’s our great contribution.”
“Look at scientists like Einstein, or at Freud or Marx. Einstein would say, ‘What Newton found was very important, but I have a right to think differently.’ And that’s the basics of scientific research and intellectual discourse.”
Even with his 65 films and many awards, Gitai still can’t be assured that he’ll get his projects funded.
“Sometimes you have to make something more modest.”
He’s critical of the current film-funding environment in Israel.
“Miri Regev forgets that she’s the Minister of Culture for Israel -- not the Minister of Culture for Likud. She’s not the only one on the planet. She needs to serve the entire population, not just the segment that voted for them.”
“This particular regime made an assault on Israeli cinema. And maybe I had something to do with it. It’s still the most opinionated cultural form in the country. In the past it was literature -- the great Israeli writers were on the model of the Russian intelligentsia, the speakers on the ethics of the country. But that’s dying out.”
“Now the filmmakers of different generations are opinionated. They sometimes give a good fight. So this regime considers them a menace to this angelic hasbara (propaganda).”
“There has been a major attack on all sorts of film financing. My great fear is that it will have a special impact on young filmmakers who are more fragile. It will push them to be more conformist. I think the country will lose.”
Movies vs. Streaming
What does he think about Steven Spielberg’s position that streaming films shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars.?
“I think it deserves thinking about. On the one hand, you tend to think there’s a point to what Spielberg is saying. On the other hand, there’s a change in the mode of viewing films. I’m sure we’ll find some modus vivendi. I’m still figuring out what I think about it.”
Advice for Beginning Filmmakers
Gitai teaches film at Columbia University, and he arranged for his students to attend the Cannes Film Festival without paying the usual fee.
What advice does he have for filmmakers who are just starting out?
“They should dig into themselves to find what is important to them, but then go outside themselves.”
“For my students at Columbia, I don’t like the neoliberal system of teaching where everyone just does what they want. I want students to have some comparative base. Otherwise, each student just does his own thing. When you have a discussion in class, it’s too politically correct and polite: ‘You don’t criticize me so I don’t criticize you.’ But it’s not really meaningful.”
“So I came with the New York Times for the day and I put it on the table. I told the groups, ‘Let’s pick a subject from this morning’s paper.’ For example, the wall that Trump’s building with Mexico, or the disappearance of the glaciers in the Himalayas, or violence in the subways of New York.”
“I said to the groups, ‘Let’s choose a subject.’ One chose the wall, the other chose the glaciers.”
“I explained to the students why methodologically I like this. Because it’s like a mathematical equation. You need some elements in equations that are constant -- that are not variable.”
“So I told them you can be for the wall or against it. I’m against the Michael Moore kind of cinema because it’s demagogic even if it’s for a good cause. When I see a film that’s demagogic, I start to have a question about the cause, even if it’s a cause that I’m for. Let people think. When you say something true, it will get to them.”
“I told my students, you can make a documentary or fiction or melodrama, but this is a common subject. It was wonderful, because they had a comparative base. They were challenged with the same problem of how you transpose a subject into a project.”
“About the glaciers, one student found an Uber driver from Nepal. He was a guide in the Himalayas. He took her to his home and showed her pictures of the glaciers and talked about how he lost his job and it was dangerous -- people were dying.”
“And then another very brilliant student said, ‘Amos , I have a problem. My father had a sister. One day she went to the parking garage and she was raped and murdered. This shattered his life. Now he’s going to go see the killer in prison and he wants me to accompany him and film it. And to me that’s more important than the glaciers.”
“I said, ‘I think what you said is relevant to the glaciers.’ How is it relevant? India says, ‘Don’t bother us with Global Warming. We have 1.3 billion people to feed and that’s more important. We don’t want them to starve and that’s it.” That’s legitimate. China says similar things. Africa says similar things. Europe is a little more disciplined. America, under Trump, also says this is nonsense.”
“They have a similar argument to yours. They say, ‘We have a much bigger problem than global warming.’ So I think you should talk about your father, saying you’re not going to do a film about global warming because of his story. It’s shocking. And it will count as a film about global warming.”
“You have to push the students to be creative, but to follow their own agenda as well, while sticking to the subject matter. It’s contradictory. Be free -- but be free in reference to a theme. Some of the work they did was fascinating.”
“I took them to Cannes because I wanted them to see the cynicism, the nonsense, the mundane aspects of the red carpet… but also to see some good films. And to see what you have to go through if you want to make good films. I think it’s good to parachute into this hub to see the futility and the superficiality of this world.”
“I try to train them to deal with the real world. But the real world is not as comfortable as a family that can be supportive and love you and think that everything you do is wonderful and that you’re a genius.”
“They’re intelligent young people. They need to be confronted with the parameters of reality. Some of them will know how to swim well, but others will not.”
A Vision for the Future
What’s his vision for the future of the Israeli film industry?
“I think there is a very good basis. There are good young people -- ambitious in a positive way -- wanting to make, to create, to leave a trace.”
“Sometimes I think that films are very interesting thematically or in subject or politically but less interesting formally, because cinema is also an art. It’s a balance between form and narrative, form and thematics. The narrative, or the politics, can be overriding. I also like films that have a formal component.”
“When people speak about the audience I think they should not think of them as consumers but as interpreters. So you should challenge them.”
“The best films I’ve seen start when the screening’s over. Because you go home have to really figure it out. Sometimes it was too slow; it was boring. Sometimes you really have to invest time to crack it. This is rewarding.”
Lauri Donahue is an award-winning American-Israeli screenwriter and playwright, based in Jerusalem.