You look fishy to me,” a soldier says to Amos Gitai as he confiscates the director’s passport and threatens to destroy his camera in Field Diary (1982), Gitai’s prescient exploration of the shattering effects of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. The soldier, unwittingly, had a point—this Israeli auteur’s vision of the Middle East is fragmentary and askew with conflicting interpretations. His retrospective of nine documentaries and features reveals a filmmaker of deep feeling and ferocious intelligence, seeking human truths amid the region’s unstable political realities.
With Field Diary, Gitai set out to make a daily journal of the simmering tensions between Israelis and Palestinians; it ends with him tailing the Israeli army into Lebanon. The results are at once ironic, hallucinatory, and surprisingly lyrical—whether filming Palestinian women mourning uprooted olive groves or government officials interring the remains of a 1st-century Jewish military hero in the Judaean desert, Gitai’s camera remains alive to the intense beauty of the land, its layers of history and violent contradictions.
Finding no backing for his work in Israel, Gitai spent nearly a decade in Paris, where he turned to fiction. Esther (1985) retells the biblical legend of the Jewish heroine who used her influence as the wife of King Ahasverus to save the Jews from destruction. Gitai lets the sounds of the modern city seep through his ancient setting—an abandoned Arab neighborhood of Haifa—and his rich mosaic of Jewish, Arab, and Armenian actors lends contemporary resonance to this tale of a people’s survival despite the arbitrary whims of power.
The harrowing Kippur (2000), made after Gitai’s return to Tel Aviv, draws upon his experiences as a soldier, shot down while flying rescue missions over Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. In this visceral drama, traffic jams, trenches filled with corpses, and even the mud of the battlefield are imbued with existential angst, redeemed only by the men’s somber tenderness toward each other.
Free Zone (2005), Gitai’s latest, opens with Rebecca (Natalie Portman) weeping in the back of a taxi, while on the soundtrack Israeli singer Chava Alberstein performs a children’s song from the Passover Haggadah, transforming it into a searing commentary on Israel’s political malaise and the loss of innocence. Hanna Laslo plays the driver who unwillingly takes Portman along as she crosses the border on a family mission into Jordan to meet “the American” and a Palestinian woman (the beautiful Hiam Abbass). Kaleidoscopic complexity often shades into confusion here, but there’s much to admire along the way, including Laslo’s performance as a woman who has been around the block of Jewish history repeatedly.