“I understand we don’t have much time.” So says a younger Amos Gitai to Yitzhak Rabin, then Prime Minister of Israel, in the starting sequence of his latest film titled ‘West of the Jordan River’.
It is a sentence that sent shivers down my spine, first of all for its prophetic wisdom (Rabin was assassinated shortly thereafter) but also because it declared the urgency in Israel to deal with the Palestinian displacement and conflict which has only inched the country closer to catastrophe twenty plus years later.
While people may read religious books, follow cults and get inspired by charismatic leaders, I look to filmmakers to find the answers for a better world and how to be a better human being. Gitai is my favorite prophet and I’m not just saying that because each time I meet him he generously indulges all my questions, even the silliest ones, and carefully gives of himself to help me understand. No, the reason Gitai’s cinema — and all the other incredible art work he produces — has become such an important influence in my life is because the Maestro has shown me what real courage looks like. And it turns out courage is not beating our chests, shouting from the rooftops, but rather a quiet thing. A wonderful blend of wisdom and care, coupled with the ability to tell everyone, everywhere, on every side of the conflict, the truth.
In ‘West of the Jordan River’, a kind of follow-up to his 1982 documentary ‘Field Diary’ Gitai holds no punches. He sits across from right-wing Israeli politicians, and shares a couch with Palestinian women who are learning to use cameras to stop the conflict. He argues with an Israeli journalist who wants to lay the blame on Palestinians and listens to another one, the legendary Gideon Levy, while he talks about bringing humanity back around to “the Other” in the media. He even shows us something I never thought possible: the human side of a settler woman, who describes being stabbed by a Palestinian man without even a hint of hatred or anger in her voice.
But most of all, Gitai holds up a mirror to the power of one, and to the greatest weapon we all possess, the strength of telling the truth. If we each could simply go one day telling it like it is, no self-delusions, lies or manipulations, I bet we would wake up to a better world tomorrow.
‘West of the Jordan River’ premiered in Cannes this year, in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar and I got to sit down with Amos Gitai for a few precious moments in the lobby of the Marriott hotel, to get my yearly dose of wisdom from this world-class Maestro.
As much as I felt you were in danger after ‘Rabin, the Last Day’, now you’ve upped that danger. Because I’ve learned that the most courageous thing is always standing on the side of peace. That’s where the true danger lies. In this film, you are making a giant step on the side of peace by pissing off both sides and bringing out the best of both sides at the same time. When did you decide to make ‘West of the Jordan River’?
Amos Gitai: This year marks 35 years to my documentary film ‘Field Diary’ and the occasion came where France Television asked me to tell my point of view. When we started, I told them lets be fair. I’m not going to do the usual stuff, the Palestinian terrorist, the vicious settler and so on. What I’m interested in, beyond this very dark moment, is to see what are the cracks in the wall.
Who are the people who are trying in this situation to build bridges? I’m just an architect, I like bridges.
We started to do the research and there is a blossoming movement of these very courageous groups of people which the current Israeli regime does everything they can to make their lives difficult. By forbidding them to be present in schools to speak to the young generations about the dilemma of occupying the Palestinian state, so there is a law by the Ministry of Education forbidding Breaking the Silence [one such organization] from speaking in schools. We cannot teach anymore Mahmoud Darwish in school. They want to lower the study of Arabic, which was until now from the foundation of the state, in equality with Hebrew — and now will be in an inferior position. This is very a very slippery road and in this universe, what can we do in cinema? We spoke at past festivals, in Venice, cinema is not the most efficient way to change the reality.
But it’s the easiest to absorb.
Gitai: And we have to start somewhere. What do I do? Make a film. We contacted all these organizations, some of what is shown in the film is seen for the first time ever including these meetings in which the human rights organization B'Tselem is teaching the Palestinian women to use cameras, they never allowed this to be filmed but they trusted us.
Was it ever problematic for you as a man and as an Israeli to be in some of the meetings, with the women in particular?
Gitai: I would not say it was problematic, it was fascinating, stimulating, moving, disturbing… They reflected and they thought “this guy, we know what he’s done for the last 37 years, he can come.” The film in a way is a kind of a voyage in this unknown territory. Even the woman who is a settler who was stabbed by a Palestinian while she was pregnant, she’s not full of hate. She was stabbed, she had a hole in her lung, and still she is not hating. I think this is a very moving group of people who are trying in spite of this very bad government.
Do you feel more hopeful after having made this film?
Gitai: I think it’s hopeful in one sense — this general universal phenomenon of authoritarian guys, which you have in America, in Turkey, in Russia, in China, in all different places… Thankfully the French were wiser, lets see how it goes… So this means that there is a disintegration of the traditional politics but in front of it, this very courageous group of Israelis and Palestinians who are taking individual responsibility. In a way, this film is beyond the Israeli Palestinian situation — it is a proposition.
There is a hopeful backgammon game in your film at a key point, without giving too much away. So is the secret to peace through arts and sports?
Gitai: Also. The question, going back to where we started, is how to make cracks in the wall. How to create a connection with people. And this initiative comes from some young people from Jerusalem who decided that the way to break part of the barriers is to initiate this very simple backgammon game, for the simple reason they wanted people to sit like we are sitting now, and look in each other’s eyes. If they only look at the evening news, it will be war but if they sit this way, and the owner of the watermelon stand distributes watermelon during the game, they will have another idea. And the music is a mixed music, Oriental music, some of the players have their Kippah and some are Palestinians. They will hold it one night in East Jerusalem on the Palestinian side, and another time on the Israeli side.
You know, the conflict is enhanced by people who want to keep it going. And they exist on both sides. Rabin was assassinated also because when he gave orders to the Army to withdraw from all the Palestinian cities, there were the bloodiest attacks in Tel Aviv carried out in civilians areas. And this was a very brutal campaign while he was withdrawing the Army and it provided the ultra right with weapons to incite against him. It’s on both sides really — it’s as if they are completely intoxicated by the conflict. The blockage is a co-production. There are different responsibilities at different moments.
Is there anything you will not do? Any line you will not cross?
Gitai: I think we have to tell the truth. For me Rabin, I was really impressed, he’s the only Israeli leader who put it on the record in his biography, that he chased Palestinians in 1948. For all the other leaders this is taboo to say, but he admitted it. So lets start by telling the truth, and find a solution. Lets not perpetrate lies.
You have a play opening at Lincoln Center in NYC in July, can you talk a bit about that?
Gitai: It’s a piece called ‘Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination’ it talks about the assassination of Rabin, which was the subject of the film I made and showed in Venice almost two years ago, and this time it’s told by two women, who both play the role of the widow of Rabin, of Leah Rabin where she tells the story.
What are you reading right now?
Gitai: I’m reading a beautiful book translated from the English written by I.F. Stone who is a great journalist and essayist and it’s called ‘The Trial of Socrates’.
All images used with permission.