Originally trained as an architect, Israel’s most controversial filmmaker Amos Gitai started his career making documentaries. Inspired and driven by the disruptive Arab-Israeli conflict, Gitai’s films question and comment on existing attitudes in the Middle East. Themes like exile, religion and homeland have been at the heart of his work from the 1970’s to this day.
His rise to fame started when he transposed his documentarist sense for raw reality to feature films. His work is known for its lengthy shots and use of classical or Israeli folk music. Often he confronts the audience by putting you right in the middle of the situation at the beginning of the film. His work has been celebrated outside of Isreal by film festivals all over the world like Berlin and Cannes. His latest film Ana Arabia, an ambitious portrait in a single take of a settlement in Jaffa where Arabs and Jews live together peacefully, was selected for the official competition of the Venice Film Festival last year.
N: There have been many retrospectives of your work the last few years. How do you feel about looking back on your carreer?
A: I think that’s fine. In my own work I make journeys back and forth, too: I often make references to my previous films. In that way, I’m still an architect, in the sense that I’m not a story-oriented director. The cinema connects story, theme and form. So a good film has to do all of this and really say something, because we have too many words which are empty of meaning. We should use film as a way to reflect, but at the same time we cannot neglect the form.
Although you say you’re not a story-oriented director, throughout your work your characters share a lot of memories and tell stories.
My mother was a great thinker and my father was an architect, so I am between narrative and form. Also, cinema is about memory. It conserves it. I think we digest memory too quickly. So cinema is a good way to reflect on things once more.
Female characters often determine the movement in your films and are at the center of your stories. What brings you to this choice?
I think the Middle East is too male-oriented. Maybe this is even one of the reasons for the many conflicts in the region – like little roosters pecking at each other. I think we need to inject female energy, and hope that they will not convert themselves into men. We should use some of the wisdom of women; perhaps only then can we pacify this region. The people involved in the conflicts have the perception that ‘this guy’ is completely angelic, and ‘the other’ totally devilish. The truth of course is that actually, each side is both. So I think peace will only be achieved by recognizing the other. If people aim for perfection through Allah or God or whatever, it enforces repression, for instance of the Palestinian memory of their territory or the abuse of women by Arab husbands. I want to escape the notion of perfection. Life is full of contradictions, full of disagreement. Peace is about accepting the other even if you’re not in agreement.
This viewpoint is very clear in Ana Arabia. Is it meant to be symbolic that the main character, the young journalist Yael, seems to only listen passively to the habitants of this settlement in Jaffa?
In the 1960s and 1970s some documentary filmmakers thought that if they would go and film some underprivileged community they needed to become members of that community. For me that is fake. I really wanted Yael to be a stranger; that’s why she’s dressed like a modern young woman and not melting into the environment. In the beginning she’s even a little disinterested. Along the way she gets more involved in the stories the habitants tell her. I think actress Yuval Scharf plays this very graciously. It’s one of the most difficult things: having two actors in the frame where one has to act more passively. She doesn’t steal the show, but I think Yuval gives a very tender performance.
Part of the thematic unity in Ana Arabia is also expressed in its form, as it is filmed in a single shot. What was that like?
Very interesting. It was something I decided from the beginning. There are sequence shots in many of my films, but this time I wanted to try and make an entire film in a single shot. We did nine takes, five of which were no good at all, I had to stop them in the middle. At the premier, someone said to me that they didn’t notice it was one shot, which I considered a big compliment, because it means that the formal elements and the technology didn’t take over. I also think it shows conversations between people in another way. As a citizen of Israel, I think the relation between Jews and Arabs should not be interrupted. So when I translate this to my own language of film, to the syntax of cinema, I also don’t want to interrupt. Therefore I don’t cut. It had to be one shot. Filming digitally has opened op this option, and a lot of other ones.
What are your ideas about that, the future of filming digitally?
The problem of film schools is that they recycle too much stuff which oppresses the younger generation, who are not rebellious enough. They should give the older generation a kick in the ass. That’s good! That’s the way culture is made. People can really try to make another kind of cinema. The problem is also that they are sometimes ambitious in too limited a manner: looking for ‘success’, aiming for the red carpet. But that’s not what filmmaking is about.
What filmmakers do you think are ‘kicking ass’?
Some dead ones, like Fassbinder! (laughs) I am inspired by directors, by bodies of work, not necessarily by a single film. It’s about opening perspectives to different interpretations. So the person is more interesting. I actually don’t consider myself a professional.
You wouldn’t call yourself a filmmaker?
Yes, I do. But I didn’t study ‘filmmaking’. I think it’s more valuable to study something to develop your own ideas and then transpose them to the medium you want to work with. NH
Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival, 2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #4– 17th of july 2014