Filmmaker Amos Gitai defends Portman’s ceremony boycott

‘Good artists were always critical’

Filmmaker Amos Gitai (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Filmmaker Amos Gitai
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Natalie Portman’s decision not to attend the upcoming Genesis Prize award ceremony, which was due to be held in her birthplace of Jerusalem in June, certainly threw a political wrench into the works.
The Oscar Award-winning actress’s statement to the effect that she did not want to be seen as supporting the current government’s policies in several areas – by sharing the event with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – sparked a flurry of angry responses.
The better known gainsayers included Culture Minister Miri Regev, who claimed that Portman had “fallen like ripe fruit into the hands of BDS supporters,” while MK Oren Hazan – currently suspended from Knesset plenary sessions and committee meeting discussions for six months due to unruly behavior – demanded that Minister of Interior Arye Deri revoke the actress’s Israeli citizenship.
While critics like Regev and Hazan are, of course, entitled to their opinions and to voice them – this is, after all, a democracy – Amos Gitai probably has a better handle on what makes Portman tick and what led her to make this controversial decision.
Gitai is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker whose better-known works include Kadosh, Kippur and Free Zone, the last of which starred Portman and Hanna Laszlo, the latter awarded Best Actress at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for her role in the film.
“I think we have to keep an open dialogue,” said Gitai in a telephone interview from Paris, where he is currently putting the finishing touches on a movie based on the Jerusalem Light Rail, which is due out in late summer-early fall.
“Each time there is an Israeli... basketball player in the NBA, we say that ‘Israeli basketball has made an achievement.’ When Natalie Portman gets an Oscar she is ‘an Israeli actress,’” he said.
Gitai posits that the patriotism weather vane swings in the opposite direction, however, when the locally-born A-lister in question is deemed to have taken a step outside of the party line.
“When Natalie says something – quite moderate – she is immediately blamed for being a traitor, collaborator with the enemy and stuff like that,” he claimed. “The usual suspects – the ministers and members of Knesset, like Hazan and [Minister of Public Security Gilad] Erdan – they start to act and shoot, like they are on a duck hunt,” Gitai continues.
“This is becoming a very uncivilized debate, in which what Natalie is saying is a legitimate critique of the policies [of the Israeli government], and the impact of these kind of policies on the general presence of Israel.”
GITAI WARNS that the current furor over Portman’s move and remarks is just the tip of the iceberg, and hints at deeper problems within Israeli society and politics. The filmmaker dips into the calamitous events, which took place here a couple of millennia ago, to refer to what he believes is a symptom of unsavory winds blowing through these parts.
“I believe Jewish sovereignty 2,000 years ago was destroyed because of the takeover of the Zealots, and this is a risk we are facing today. I think the fact that the public, today, is going in this direction is a very unfortunate thing,” he lamented.
That attitude, Gitai suggests, can make inroads into various walks of life, including his line of work. “It is a menace to the freedom of creation and freedom of speech, and I think we are in trouble if we carry on like this,” he said.
The director is concerned that what he sees as a narrow, partisan line of thought may have repercussions both here and across the Jewish world. “This is also about the relation with the Diaspora. You can act like there are Jews in the Diaspora just to give us money... and then we close our ears when they have some criticism of us. We can’t do that – we have to keep the dialogue open,” Gitai said.
“Without the Diaspora, especially the American Diaspora, this country would not have existed. Israel has to listen to the voices in the Diaspora, and Natalie Portman is a good example of that.”
Gitai feels that he and his colleagues have a role to play in keeping the discourse channels healthy and free-flowing, even if it means wagging a finger or two at the powers that be. It is, he says, part and parcel of artistic creation.
“The arts always meant you asked questions,” he explained. “Take the example of Picasso – he takes the bombardment by the Luftwaffe of the Basque village of Guernica [during the Spanish Civil War], and makes a painting. We appreciate the painting, the composition and use of color and so on, but it is also a civil act. It is the act of revolt against the bombardment of this village, and Picasso is a painter. So, let’s learn from artists. Good artists were always critical.”