By Madhusree Chatterjee
Iconic Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai has carved an unusual niche in the centuries-old conflict between the Jews and the Arab people in West Asia. His movies bring a thin light of hope to his fans across both sides of the religious divide that peace might be a reality someday because of the “immeasurable” scale of human suffering in the Israel-Palestine mire.
“What will be there? Eventually, there will be an agreement,” Gitai told this writer in an informal conservation on the sidelines of the screening of his movie, “Disengagement” in New Delhi – India’s national capital. Gitai, who is gracing the Kolkata Film Festival in the West Bengal capital as a guest of honour (the festival is paying a homage to his years as a filmmaker with special screenings), stopped in New Delhi en route to Kolkata. He was besieged by fans and the media to speak about his “human cinema” at Alliance Francaise and in one-and-one interactions later.
Israel and Palestine strangely wait for Gitai’s cinema to hark them back to the reality on the ground and the aspirations of the people. His new movie, “Ana Arabia” (honoured in Venice), described by critics as a masterpiece speaks of this co-existence between the Arabs and the Jews.
The comment makes Gitai contemplative. “May be… It is almost as if they are waiting for me to make another movie — I will make another movie in order for them to move forward with issue of peace. I cannot make another film for them,” Gitai is suddenly emphatic referring to his movie, “Disengagement (2006-2007)” which dealt with the evacuation of the Israeli settlers at Gaza — of the human disruptions, suffering, role of the armed Israeli peaceniks tasked with removing the settlers and the animosities between the Arab and the Jews in a settlement at Gaza through the lens of a reunion between an expatriate mother (from France) and an abandoned daughter, a teacher in settlement Gush Katif.
“Disengagement” is the final movie of a trilogy on contemporary Israel that includes “Free Zone” and “The Promised Land”.
Gaza has been one of Gitai’s foremost pre-occupations for several years since the Yom Kippur war— to such an extent that the filmmaker uses the “Hitchcock-ian” device of a cameo personal appearance (in the movie) to speak of the torn social mosaics at Gush Katif. In June 1967, after the six day war, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and created a settlement bloc Gush Katif with 21 residential clusters. But the Oslo Accord in 1994 saw the Gaza Strip change hands and go under Palestinian control. Between the year 1994-1995, Israel erected the Gaza Strip barrier for security, but the Palestinians dismantled it at the onset of the Al-Aqsa Intifida (war).
In 2005, the Israeli Parliament Knesset approved a disengagement plan and evacuated nearly 9,000 Israeli settlers from settlements in Gaza. The strip, ruled by the insurrectionist political group Hamas, has been since been constantly at odds with Israel over faith and territory.
“I think there was an opinion poll recently that showed Israelis and Palestinians will be in agreement in the future… A friend of my mother had once said something very significant — there is a lot of heroism, but not enough courage. We have bridge the gap,” Gitai said in response to an inquiry about the situation on the ground.
The filmmaker is grounded in the fissures of his land. In 1973, when the Yom Kippur war interrupted Gitai’s architecture studies, he was summoned to serve in the Israeli army as a member of the helicopter rescue unit. His drafting was his passage into film. The young student shot footage of the conflict on the border with an 8 mm camera. It became the subject for his first full-length feature movie on the war, “Kippur”. The filmmaker’s biography says Gitai’s helicopter was shot down on his birthday by Syrian missile, leaving an indelible mark in his life — and influencing his stand on West Asian wars and human counts.
“But I don’t think cinema is not the most effective way to change reality. It is meant to make people. Think. It is a good beginning,” Gitai said. The filmmaker believes that it is important for artists and filmmakers in traditional societies to speak out about the kind of people (leaders) needed to bridge the gaps.
“I was trained as an architect and I look at films from an architectural perspective — to build bridges,” he said. In his 2000 movie, “Kippur”, a cinematic depiction of the Kippur war, Gitai used an image of ruined mosque as a metaphor throughout the film. It served as a reminder. In “Disengagement”, Gitai allowed the Arab settlers to vent their angst against the Israeli settlers at the end of the movie. It is important for everyone to have a voice, he said.
“Israel is a combination of external pressure. As long as it chooses to remain an open society and not become judgmental, there is hope for peace. You have to allow the younger generation to feel that you can change it — through the arts, you can show you can change it,” Gitai explained in a passionate defence of an inclusive approach to politics and arts in West Asia. “Most of my work deals with how individuals are crushed by general ways – of individuals dissected by grand powers. India — more than Israel — is the easiest way to speak about it. It has its conflicts, divisions — heritages that British had left behind”.
The middle-eastern conflicts are rife with stories and melodramas in their fire and blood— aspects that are compatible with Gitai’s oeuvre of work. “When settlers in Gaza were evacuated, the media was very active in the middle east. Cinema was a powerful medium on both sides. Both the Jews, Arabs and the Palestinians shave been using the media,” the filmmaker said. Gitai “used the medium “ as well
The filmmaker said he was against the “settlers” politically. “But during the shooting of ‘Disengagement’ Gitai was touched by their attachment to the place. Decolonisation as a process is not easy,” Gitai admitted. The filmmaker, who spent much of his life in Europe and US till his return to Haifa (in Israel) after the Oslo Accords, has often been charged with simplistic depiction of the Israeli-Arab standoff rooted in historical complexities. He has been called an outsider which could be the reason behind the overseas success of movies rather than at home. Gitai, however, refuses to see any complicated contexts in the conflict.
“Most of the planet has a simplistic vision of the West Asian conflict. It is between angelic and devilish people. But it is not a pure conflict. Each side has its own elements of both. But you don’t have to end up every dispute by killing,” Gitai said. “Now even the Europeans look at us as savage middle eastern people.”
The filmmaker said he was “an independent” in his portrayal of his nation and its troubles — he shows Israel and the region that way he wants it to be. His exile in France for several years during his filmmaking life gives him a stubborn outlook to West Asian realities — a little Euro and urban centric. In France, Gitai choose to make fictional feature films like “Esther” (based on his mother), “Berlin-Jerusalem”, “Birth of a Golem” and “Golem – The Spirit of Exile”. These movies resonated with his sense of isolation and longing for home.
Gitai born in 1950 in Haifa to Munio Weinraub and Efratia Margalit, who conceived the pre-war Bauhaus movement in Germany. The family later changed their name to Gitai.
“I am from a group of filmmakers, whose work is inspired by their places of birth and exists (work) today – thanks to France which facilitated the growth of different cultures including Jewish and Hebrew cultures. My father was an architect and an immigrant. We are (like most Jews) are Israelis without territories and borders. This is the contradiction of many Jews moving on the planet for a long time,” Gitai said. But then territory was suddenly on the horizon.
“In the last 100 years, the Jews have to live with the reality of a territory. They are trying to find out the proportions — how much they will remain grounded and how much they will move. There is a schism within the society on this and a debate,” Gitai said.
The fimmaker’s work is nostalgic. Twenty years ago, he lectured at FTII, Pune on cinema. His students remember him with reverence. “I still remember what you had said 20 years ago. You can teach anybody how to make a film. You can only teach someone how to be free,” says an SMS message on Gitai’s cell phone. It is from one of his students, Indranil Roychowdhury, who teaches at FTII.
The message, which he shows this writer with a good-natured smile, is symbolic of his emotional connection with Bengal and with the larger canvas of Indian cinema and its sensibilities.
“For people, outside India, the tradition of Bengali cinema (from West Bengal) is different from Bollywood. They are on two opposite sides of the sub-continent with two opposing kinds of cinema. When you look at the works of Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, you see the reflection of a certain kind of cinema that is not entertainment. I feel there is a good lot of interesting Bengali filmmakers. When you look at Ritwik Ghatak’s biography, it shows that he understood the schism of Bengal would end in a tragedy – of split identity in a multi-racial society,” the filmmaker said.
Gitai identifies with the displaced demography of Bengal. “I agree with Ghatak about what we have in these modern times. In this age, all the humanity has been displaced. Refugees are inhabiting the metropolises and people are moving from the hillsides. For the filmmaker, this is new material,” he said. The human condition is what Gitai likes about India.
“Not much of mythical aspects – it exists all over the place. But in India, you have a sense of honesty…I am interested in this culture,” Gitai said.
He is not seduced by Hollywood despite his “experiences” as a filmmaker with big names like “Natalie Portman, Juliette Binoche and Bernardo Bertolucci, whom he directed as an actor”. “These machines are stronger than the individual thinkers — they have a strong aspect of stardom. My work is based on issues and themes that touch me,” Gitai said.
Cinema to Gitai is like an architectural project that has to stand on three legs like a table or else it will fall down. “That is why the trilogies,” the filmmaker smiled.