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"The cockpit exploded," the director recalled on an autumn afternoon in New York, when rumblings of war in the Middle East were once again audible. "The copilot was killed instantly, bits of blood and brains were all mixed up with us. Flying without windows or doors, the pilot managed to recross the lines and crash-land on the Israeli side."
Kippur, his most recent feature, mines these harrowing memories for a soldier's-eye view of war. Gitai, then a student of architecture, emerged from the helicopter's ruins with light wounds, but his internal scars were as deep as the fault lines then opening in Israeli society.
"There was a lot of anger in me, coming out of that war," he said. "And it was also political. People of that generation were really furious with our political leadership's lack of responsibility. I distilled that anger into cinema. And that day I felt that I had gained my right to say what I think."
It's a habit he's pursued through two decades of filmmaking in this volatile region. House (1980), a documentary he directed for state television, dug through the history of a Jewish home in Jerusalem, uncovering previous Palestinian owners; it has never aired in Israel. Field Diary (1982), a strangely lyrical cinematic journal, exposed the simmering violence of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and southern Lebanon years before the intifada became a nightly news feature.
After that film, Gitai could find no backing for his work in Israel, so he moved to Paris, where he made his first fiction films. In 1993 he returned to Tel Aviv, but still finds much of the support for his work in Europe. Kadosh (1999), the story of two sisters living in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, was the first Israeli feature to screen in competition at Cannes in 25 years. (Kippur was the second.) Both were made with the help of French producers.
Gitai will be shooting his next film in New York this fallan adaptation of Arthur Miller's "Homely Girl, a Life," starring Samantha Morton and set in the 1930s. But the contradictions and passions of the Middle East, and of Jewish identity and history, are at the core of his work.
Filmmaking in Israel, he said, allows him to engage in "a continuous dialogue with history as it is being formed." The land is dense with television cameras, he noted, but they rarely capture a profound reality. "The world networks have decided that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes for very good television," he continued. "But the media should not just shock you with violent images, but also help you analyze and situate what you see. Since, in most cases, it's not doing that, cinema has a very important role to play.
"If my early films, like House, and Wadi, and Field Diary, explored the complexity and tragic nature of contemporary Palestinian history," he said, "then I think that Kippur works against an oversimplification of the Israeli soldier, of his universe and his attitude."
Kippur was shot last winter on the Golan Heights, which were then under negotiation; Gitai mobilized enough tanks and helicopters for the United Nations to send a note to Syria assuring them that a movie, and not a war, was in the making. Yet the spectacular machinery and earsplitting music of war, the sound of guns and explosions, serve to highlight the tenderness that binds these men who are on the brink of exhaustion.
Gitai's hopes for the region lie with the deep fatigue that Kippur makes palpable. "I think that peace will eventually be created through fatigue," he said. "People will basically crawl, when they're completely exhausted and shaken, to stretch their arm out to the other side. I had hoped that people were already sufficiently drained by this violence, but apparently not. They still have the energy, and determination, to create more suffering and inflict more death."
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