Conversation Amos Gitai / Peter Cowie

PETER COWIE: So, Amos, Čedomir just said that some people migrate in order to be able to express themselves - in film or in other arts. You came to France, I believe, in order to be able to finish your documentary film, Field Diary. When you came there, did you find that you fell under the influence of the French cinema? Did your approach to filmmaking or in - deed to life change having been in Israel before that?

AMOS GITAI: I think that the life of a filmmaker is always a composition of forces which are external to him. And then he translates this through his particular way of looking, his particular prism and the circumstances of his life. I am just an architect and I never studied film. I think the particular circumstances of this part of the world, the Middle East, pushed me away from the trade of my father who was an architect. The circumstances of the Middle East being always so dramatic, producing a kind of endless conflictual Phaeton by itself, squeezed me in, especially this incidence during the Yom Kippur War. And I decided that I wanted to relate to the experiences I was going through in a more direct way than architecture and that brought me to making films. Some of these early documentaries were not re - ceived very positively by my countrymen. And especially after a group of documentaries, first House, the film that was produced and then not shown by television in Israel, and the one you mentioned, Field Diary, I found my options of working in Israel more and more limited. I decided to go to Paris for a few weeks, which lasted seven years. In that period of the early 1980s when I came I found Paris extremely interesting. It was the early Mitterand years, a great interest in the re-injection of energy, of thought, into culture and especially into cinema. And I could complete my studies, so I finished my documentary. And I think it was really extremely helpful to be in this environment.

PETER COWIE : Is there now a borderless cinema in Europe and the Middle East and if there is, what difficulties does that pose not just for emigrants and exiles but also for filmmakers who want to view the situation objectively and sensitively? I mean, it seems to me that the global village has created a borderless cinema. In the old days Cannes would announce: "un film des États-Unis" and now they don't, they just say: "the festival presents".

AMOS GITAI: I think that in a way this is related to a larger context. The last century has dissected all the indigenous cultures, there are no happy tribes any more, I would say. There are no remote spaces on the planet which are enclaves to another existence. Everything is related to each other. This is the material for us filmmakers to work with. This is the reality. This is the fictional material, this is what writers also do, not just filmmakers or visual artists. And you rightly said that the festivals don't bother so much about the flags which I think is right because there are more things in common let's say be - tween a filmmaker like Abbas Kiarostami and myself - at least in a mutual respect. We did master classes together in Brazil, in Italy, in different countries, although the two countries are in a state of war - Iran and Israel are really on the verge of war. So, if you just look at the politics you would say there is no way an Iranian could work with an Israeli. We actually find an affinity, we like what we do with each other.
I think that cinema is constructing a very fragile bridge across these minefields. And this was the procedure that I wanted to do in different films that I made in the Middle East, which is to find a way that cinema can cross the borders of prejudice, of the schematic view of the 'other', of caricature presentation which is the material of the evening news. But I think cinema should make another proposition and cross these borders. And so it be comes the title of these discussions, a kind of migration by itself.

PETER COWIE: Just very briefly, to give people an idea of Disengagement for those who haven't seen it: Juliette Binoche is reunited with her estranged Israeli stepbrother in France and decides to go back to the Middle East, to Israel, to look for a daughter she had given up 20 years before. And, I think you ask the rhetorical question: can human beings conquer the political mega-structure? Because when she comes there and she finds that the Gaza is being evacuated forcibly, she's caught up in this, and she has never confronted anything like this in her life, and she feels very helpless, I think.

AMOS GITAI : Right, we have to be honest about it. Cinema - although maybe we thought in the 1960's it would change the world - will not change the world, because there are more direct instruments to change reality. There are politics, there are machine guns, they act directly on the real world. Cinema is a kind of reflection, a proposal. And it's a good beginning; we have to start somewhere, to evacuate some of the hatred. So, it is always a kind of proposition, we ask people to give it a thought. And actually, I think the best films are the ones that start when the screening is over, they give us material, they work on our imagination. They provoke us to reinterpret. They are not something that is swallowed and digested instantaneously.

PETER COWIE : You say that films can't influence life or political life, but if igno - rance is the main enemy of tolerance, I think a filmmaker like you strives to dissipate that ignorance and to provide knowledge in the place of it. In a film like that, you are taking someone like Juliette Binoche, a character from another country, and showing her the real everyday reality of what's going on in the Middle East, which otherwise we would not see, not even through the evening news.

AMOS GITAI: Yes, I think that when we see films that confront our existing image of a region, they in a way enlarge our perception. Otherwise we are really captives of the evening news, and the evening news become more and more fictional. They are kind of a showbiz extension of violence, they depict only the spectacular elements, they don't really inform us so much. They are another kind of spectacle in giving us the illusion that we are being informed but really they focus strictly on the spectacular aspect. In cinema we have larger blocks of time - we have one and a half, two hours - and if we are honest and do good work, we can get our characters to voyage and see their contradictions. I think we should collect contradictions. People are about contradictions, they are not about brilliant opinions. And I think that we always have to ask questions. For a previous film, Free Zone, I wanted to shoot in an Arab country for the first time, in Jordan. The advice I got was that this was impossible. But when people tell me that something is impossible, I try even harder. So, I wrote to the Jordanian Film Commission and went to Amman with my production people. The Jordanians asked me what I would film and I told them I would not film camels in sunsets. I will ask questions, I will ask them not to make an exoticism of this conflict because it is always easy to make an exoticism of the conflict, of 'the other' - not our own conflict but the 'other'. It's very exotic and it gives us the illusion that we know exactly what is going on. So I said I don't want to make exoticism, I want to film high - ways, parking lots, things that exist in Jordan, they exist in Tel Aviv, they exist in Ramallah... Let's normalise the visual representation of the Middle East, or at least try to. And I think that with Disengagement I wanted to continue trying to cross borders, to disrespect the minefields, the physical ones, the ones of the mind, and to get people very far away from where we start - we start the film in Avignon but we end in the heart of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. So we make a really long journey across a lot of borders, mental and physical ones.

PETER COWIE: Yes, and in a way you use two forms of expression, and I think you've done that in much of your career. There's a documentary side and a fictional side, and within the fictional side a certain element of fantasy in a wonderful way, but also a very hard-nosed documentary approach. In Disengagement the opening, perhaps the first half of the film, which takes place in France, has a very mysterious quality. And then the last half has a very brutal, almost in your face, hand-held camera type reality. You seem to be drawn to both forms. Is that a conscious thing on your part from the beginning?

AMOS GITAI: I see Juliette Binoche in Europe as somebody caged by a relatively static environment. And then the turmoil is really interior to the character. What is happening outside is kind of nuanced because it is a relatively stable situation. And I think that when she goes to Israel, the turmoil is external, the drama is in the exterior. Some people, when they travel to these zones of conflict, they become more at ease, more calm, because what is very agitating to them internally when they are in this static heavy European landscape is that there is no way through, there is no way out. We shot it in Avignon, full of beautiful architecture but so fetishised, so precious. Again, being an architect ori - ginally, I think that part of what we see in Europe sometimes is that because the architecture is so fetishised and cultivated it becomes a big burden. And you want a way out, you want to breathe, you want to be in the present. You don't just want to fetishise 16th, 17th, 18th century pieces full of gold and ornaments because we are in a different period.

PETER COWIE: When your films are shown in Israel, are they shown as Israeli features or are they shown with subtitles for the French parts? Do you have diffi - culty in getting your films distributed in your home country because you moved abroad?

AMOS GITAI : I recently said to myself that I was probably born in the eye of the storm because everything that I do evokes a kind of question, which is good, we need to question. A deputy director of the Israeli public TV channel said that I'm not an Israeli director and I never filmed my films in Israel, which is just ignorance, because I did. But I think I am making cinema that has opinions, so it's not a washed out cinema. I like directors like Rossellini or Fassbinder, directors who are very in - terested in their society and make intense films, not the cinematic products a lot of people would like us to make, but strong cinema that asks relevant questions. And then it is completely legitimate that some people will agree and others will disagree and all of this debate is completely fine. It is a contribution that we filmmakers can make to whatever you want to think about.

PETER COWIE: And all over Europe migrants or immigrants have actually been making the most lively cinema in recent years - whether it's Pakistanis in Norway or Iraqis in Sweden, the Indian community in Britain or the Turkish community here in Germany. These are also the films that reach an audience.

AMOS GITAI : Absolutely! I think that's the future, really, of cinema. Being from what I would say is Jewish origin - I'm not religious but I think the great contribution of Jews to universal culture is by assuming that they can reside anywhere and they can have a different opinion. They are not obliged to conform 100%. They can conform partly and another part stays on the track of having another way of looking. I think that in terms of cinema you are absolutely right: all these people will eventually renovate and refresh the way that we look at our own societies. I think that the more open the institutional structures to accommodate these people are, the better it is because it will allow access to the means of production, to really participate.

PETER COWIE: Amos, I thank you very much for joining us this morning. Thank you very, very much.

AMOS GITAI : Thank you.

Berlin, December 2, 2007

Peter Cowie
born in 1939 in England, he graduated from Cambridge University and has been well known since 1963 as the founder and publisher as well as general editor of the annual Inter national Film Guide, a survey of world-wide film production. For more than forty years now he has been writing about film and has published in this period more than thirty books, among them biographical studies on Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman and Francis Ford Coppola, to name but a few, as well as reference books on the national cinemas of Finland, Ice land, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. Peter Cowie currently lives in Switzerland, in the French-speaking Vaud region.

Amos Gitai
born in 1950 in Haifa in Israel as the second son of Bauhaus architect Munio Weintraub and former Zionist activist Efratia Margalit, the family changed its name to Gitai, the Hebrew translation of the German name Weintraub. Amos Gitai studied architecture in Haifa, when the Yom Kippur War interrupted his studies and he joined the army in 1973. During the war he started filming with an 8mm camera his mother gave him as his birthday present. On his 23rd birthday, his heli - copter was shot down by a Syrian missile. Six of the seven crews on board survived, including Gitai himself, who was eventually motivated by this traumatic experience to quit architecture alto - gether and move to filmmaking. He made a documentary on this crash-incident and his fellow survivors, Kippur: War Memory in 1993, then a fictional recreation of it, Kippur, in 2000. Based in Israel, the United States and France, Gitai has produced an extraordinary, wide-ranging and deeply personal body of work. In around forty films, documentary and fiction, Gitai has explored the layers of history in the Middle East and beyond, including his own personal history, through such themes as homeland and exile, religion, social control and utopia. His trademark style includes long takes with scarce but significant camera movements and a devilishly clever sense of humour.