Israeli director Amos Gitai is an important name in world cinema. Actors Jeanne Moreau, Natalie Portman and Juliette Binoche have acted in his films. At the just-concluded International Film Festival of India (IFFI), 2015, where a retrospective of his films was showcased, he was among the few directors present, who raised the issue of the validity of students’ protests, the worrying conditions that lead to cultural paralysis -- and how the assassination of its country’s leaders has affected both India and Israel.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as seen through his films, avoids the political, they are snapshots of the everyday life and problems faced by the two people living a state of disagreement next to each other.
Watch the trailer of Amos Gitai’s Disengagement here:
Gitai’s films talk of peace and harmony, a balancing that seems to equate Palestinian violence against the state of occupation with Israeli violence to suppress the former. Yitzak Rabin’s assassination, Gitai acknowledges, was by an Israeli. He sees that murder as “a current encouraged by Palestinian violence in urban centres, which in turn encouraged the Israeli rightwing”.
For those of us growing up in the ’70s, the late PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, were important world leaders. How did Rabin’s assassination, on which you made a film, impact you?
Rabin’s death strikes a chord in India, a country that has also known the assassination of its leaders, an act of violence that shapes the contemporary histories of countries. I made the film not just as a filmmaker but as a citizen of Israel concerned about the direction Israel has been taking after his death 20 years ago.
Watch a video clip from Rabin the Last Day here:
What has been the audience response to the film, Rabin, in India and elsewhere?
When I look at Indian cinema, I see that there are enough filmmakers to entertain you, and entertainment is a legitimate desire. But along with great singing and dancing, there should be enough social content. I have travelled in your country, been to cinema festivals in Trivandrum and Kolkata and obviously seen Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak films. These were people who worked on their craft in order to shape an opinion. That is the work and privilege of all filmmakers, and which I try to do as well. Rabin, the film, is an expression of my affection for my country and my concern for it, and both feelings are important. Killing Rabin at a time when he was trying to reach out for peace, meant the space for peace was stalled for a long time.
IFFI held your retrospective this year with 10 films. Are they the most representative of your works?
They were chosen by an IFFI panel. One of them, an early feature, is on the secular lives of Israelis, another is on the position of women in religion - the latter, I am very proud to say, has been embraced by Bangladeshi feminists. They wrote me a letter saying that. This is what films do, they go beyond cultures. So, when Indian filmmakers ask me about my work, my advice to them is to do their work with the fullest freedom for without that, art cannot survive.
Alila, I believe, was made at a time when your son was called to the army. The film shows a set of parents wanting their son to join up even as the son says he does not want to go. But the film is about many other things as well.
Alila has Chinese migrant workers, Taiwanese assistants, old men re-living the holocaust, people suffering nightmares, neighbours who have different ideas about each other. All in all, a de-composite society.
In all my films, what I’m trying to do is put different pieces of the puzzle of Israel together and with each film trying to tackle a different question. So, each film feels like a page from my own diary of life. Director Robert Altman in Shortcuts showed how our lives are no longer about coherent communities. There’s a juxtaposition of fragments, there’s no real continuity. In India and Israel, the grandfather, the father and the son are no longer staying in the same house. People have been displaced for various reasons. The modern condition is about rupture, this has to be experienced in cinema.
What is the importance of film schools in your country?
Last year, at a press conference with director Abbas Kiarostami, I was again asked about film schools and I answered, ‘My advice would be to go and learn architecture’. I began my professional life as an architect. I did not go to a film school. I saw Bergman when I felt like it and not when I was told. You can’t spoonfeed culture anyway. The audience should not be a consumer, it must be an interpreter of the cinematic experience. The film should make him work, it should make him think. I have, anyway, always believed that the film actually starts when it gets over.
Students at our premier film school, the FTII, has been protesting for some time. At the opening ceremony of IFFI, two were arrested. One of them was not even protesting, but was detained in a police station for over 10 hours, his IFFI registration cancelled, presuming he would protest as he had come to the festival wearing an FTII T-shirt.
The best homage that an artist can pay his or her own country is to speak the truth when it needs to be spoken. We know filmmakers in your country have been facing issues on these fronts.
How is freedom and dissent playing out in Israeli society? Are film institutes autonomous?
We have a new minister who tries to control culture by interfering with the content of cultural expressions, blocks theatre performances she doesn’t like, and tries to control the finances of products of culture if she feels it isn’t the right culture.
Has the assassination that killed the ideas of Rabin made way for another idea that accepts the right of Palestine to exist as an independent country?
Countries are pulled by different opinions. The current government in power is not the one that represented Rabin. The level of violence in the Middle East does not encourage the space for peace and reconciliation. The most stable coalitions are the ones that want to continue the violence. But I believe that the ideas of Rabin for co-existence will prevail.
In your films how do you show ordinary Israelis and Palestinians dealing or resisting the state of being in permanent hostage to a situation of war?
People are full of contradictions. I’m against the idea of perfection. The important thing is to understand their humanity. There are imperfections on both sides. I was born in the north, in Haifa, which is a model of good relations between Israelis and Palestinians in day-to-day interactions. The day-to-day of life is very important. My film Yom-Yom is about this. What politicians say is another thing. The media, of course, finds it easy to assign who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’, the meaning of which they then change on a daily basis. The task of cinema is to try to create an understanding.
Some say your cinema is pacifist.
We have to go down the angelic hierarchy. Let’s face it, things won’t be perfect. The difference between politics and the arts is that in the arts, you can be very radical. Politics is about finding a good equilibrium. You can’t dictate. If you go the Pol Pot way, then everybody would be doing agriculture. I believe the Middle East will one day walk into a better phase. I’m a believer in ideas and ideas have moved mountains.
The rise of the Islamic State in West Asia -- will that feature in your future movies?
I don’t want to make Arab filmmakers unemployed.