Mom, dad and me

Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Amos Gitai is preparing two multimedia exhibitions about his parents for the Ein Harod Museum.

Amos Gitai 521 (photo credit: Dan Bronfeld)
Amos Gitai 521
(photo credit: Dan Bronfeld)
His filmmaking career began in 1973, around the time his helicopter was shot down by the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War. Since then, he has written, produced and directed more than 80 films – from documentaries to experimental films, war dramas to adventure stories, and angry political statements to droll comedies of manners.
He has directed well-known actors and actresses, even stars like Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman.
His movies, like Kadosh, which attacked the role of religion in Israeli society; Kippur, a critical examination of the Yom Kippur War; and Kedma, a reappraisal of the War of Independence, have delighted some, while enraging others. An early film, Field Diary, about the first Lebanon War, led to a tacit banning of his movies in Israel and a 10-year self-exile from the country that ended in 1993.
Highly regarded in Europe, with retrospective showings of his films in places as far afield as Brazil, China and Japan, he has been nominated for no fewer than four Palme d’Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival; was distinguished Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2000; received the Rossellini prize in 2005 and 2007, and was awarded a Leopard of Honor at the Locarno Film Festival in 2008.
He resides in both Haifa and Paris.
He is Amos Gitai, 61, the internationally acclaimed Israeli filmmaker who has managed to become both a cinematic icon in France and a magnet for often vituperative controversy in his native land.
Metro caught up with him recently in the midst of preparing two multimedia exhibitions for the Ein Harod Museum, one dealing with his father, architect Munio Weinraub and called “Traces”; the other about his mother, Zionist activist Efratia Gitai, called “Letters.”
How did having your helicopter shot down in the Yom Kippur War make you a professional filmmaker?
When the Yom Kippur War started, I was a student of architecture at the Technion in Haifa. I had already done my army service from 1968 to 1971, in the Sayeret Egoz, which was a special unit.
When the war began, I went into the reserves, like all the people in my generation. And since we had some expertise flying helicopters, and so on, a friend and I were sent to a base in the north, and we started flying to bring people who were burning in the tanks to Rambam Hospital.
Other missions were more audacious. We were sent into Syria to look for pilots of mostly Skyhawk jets who had been hit, and had to parachute over Syrian territory. So we did many missions, and on the fifth day of this war, on October 11 – which was also my birthday – we were trying to pick up a pilot who had lost his plane.
So we entered Syria. One can say that we were kind of a Red Cross mission. The Syrians fired a missile at our helicopter. The copilot was immediately killed. The cockpit exploded. And the pilot somehow managed to hold the joystick with his muscles – the hydraulic system was gone – and fly three more minutes to cross the line back to the Israeli forces and prepare a gradual crash into Israeli territory.
In the end, in addition to the copilot being killed, the doctor died and people were heavily wounded. I’m happy to be here to speak to you today.
In the first days of the war, since it was very close to my birthday, I had gotten a little Super 8-mm. movie camera from my mother. I began to film little textures, faces, and some fragments of missions when I had the time.
Maybe this is my beginning as a filmmaker – but I didn’t take it very seriously at first. I continued my studies in the Technion, and then I got a grant to go to the University of California at Berkeley, where I did a master’s and a PhD in architecture. I began making films full time in 1980.
And yet, a scant three years later, you felt the need to exile yourself to France. Why?
I did a trilogy of films dealing with Israeli- Palestinian relations. The first one was called House, which was produced, and then not shown, by Israeli television. The second one was Wadi, which I filmed in Haifa in a little marginal enclave in which there is coexistence between Jews and Arabs. And the third one was Field Diary, which I had showed before, during and after the first Lebanon war in 1982.
I think that at this period, roughly 30 years ago, the level of recognition in Israeli society of the Palestinian issue was very limited. Mostly there was a hostility to anyone who raised these questions, or said they were a legitimate subject for a movie.
After House, I couldn’t do any more work for Israeli television. This was explained to me in explicit terms. There was only one TV channel at that time. Now we have so many channels, so it’s much easier.
After Field Diary, other doors started to close. Around that time, I received an invitation from the Cinematheque in Paris to show some of my early experimental films. So we went – my wife, Rivka, my daughter, who was just a few months old, and me. We went for just a few weeks, and those few weeks lasted 10 years.
Were you actually “blacklisted”?
I don’t know. And to be honest, I never even really thought of my time away as an “exile.” It was difficult, it was tough, and it was unpleasant. But one should not overdramatize it. I think that if I’d been living under something like the Pinochet regime, I probably would not be here today to speak to you; and this is clearly not the case.
I think that it’s my job as a filmmaker, as a citizen, and as someone who went through what I did during the war to pose questions. It’s instructive, but sometimes when you pose questions people don’t want to hear, it doesn’t bring you only glory.
I think people have a right to disagree with me. You have to do what you have to do, and they have to do what they think they have to do. And you have to keep working.
Is it easier to make films like Field Diary now?
Yeah. Definitely. But not just thanks to me. Thanks also to other works by other people as well. But I think that the group of films I did in the early ’80s were kind of pioneering of a new concept for Israeli cinema: that any subject is a legitimate subject for a film.
You know, I’m not an automatic fan of American cinema, but one thing I’ll give to American cinema – the reason it is the most powerful cinema on the face of the planet – is that they consider that every subject could be the basis for a film.
You have, for example, a corrupt president? Okay, let’s make five films. You have a stupid war? Make 20 films, a TV series, plus remakes, and so on.
So the cinema fulfills its role of creating a debate, or contributing to the debate, and I think that’s very good.
Do you accept people’s usual characterization of you as a “left-wing filmmaker”?
Well, I don’t belong to any particular party or organization. I don’t even sign as many petitions as a lot of my colleagues. But I definitely think that Israel has to find forms of coexistence if it wants to survive in this region. I think that this is clearly in Israel’s interest.
It’s better than something that might be imposed on us, [better than] if we just hide under the table and think everything is fine. I think we have to decide for ourselves what would be a reasonable solution, which also considers the desires of other people.
Part of the strength of Israeli society is its openness. Having met a lot of filmmakers from neighboring Arab countries, I can say that if there is any one thing about Israel that makes them jealous, this is it – the openness of Israeli society, the capacity of Israeli artists and writers to act and to create.
I think that keeping this openness going is necessary for Israel’s security. Think of the units in the army, with these young kids who managed to put an Internet arm deep into a nuclear facility in Iran [referring to the Stuxnet virus, which many have attributed to Israel, but for which it has never acknowledged responsibility]. I believe that this is a composite of the fact that we’ve got a real external menace and an open society.
If we just had the external menace with a more consolidated, more homogenized society, we would not have this fire in these kids. If this is what is called “leftist,” then I believe I’m definitely a leftist. I think Israel should remain an open society – tolerant to minorities in the country, [upholding] sexual equality and not falling into the trap of being a theocracy or an autocracy. We can keep traditions, but we must definitely remain pluralistic and open.
Is there any part of our traditions that you find useful or important?
Of course! Look, Israel is in the process of digesting its contemporary history. People want to look forward, toward hi-tech and other things, but we must not forget that our point of departure is part of our identity. We have to keep a memory of our previous phases.
I think that even this exhibition I’m doing now in Ein Harod, about my parents, is because I feel there is something in their exemplary biographies that poses interesting questions about the present. So there is one installation dedicated to my father, and one to my mother.
My father was from Galicia. He grew up in Berlin. He went to the Bauhaus to study architecture. Then in 1933, soon after the Nazis seized power, he was jailed with four other students, all Jewish. And then the Nazis closed the Bauhaus.
My father was accused of “treason against the German people.” So, luckily, he was thrown out of Germany, found his way to Basel, and then arrived here in the mid-1930s. He was one of the architects who contributed to what we now know as the Bauhaus style of architecture. He did the first drawing for Yad Vashem.
I think an installation in which you enter a gallery and just see some vague images you’re supposed to appreciate is problematic. I prefer that the visitor should see my point of departure.
So first, I am exhibiting the documents of the Nazi tribunal, and then the fictionalization of these documents on video. So you see both the point of departure: the documents, the photos – the kinds of things we are left with when our parents are gone, a chaotic collection of pieces of paper – and then I transform this through my own medium of cinema.
My mother was born here 100 years ago, on the dunes of Tel Aviv. She says that she worked with her sandals on her feet on the dunes of Tel Aviv. Her father came with Ben-Gurion in 1905. So they were really the salt of the earth.
If Israel has an aristocracy, like Americans whose ancestors were on the Mayflower, this is the reason – not because of money or their genealogy. My mother comes from people who were really active in building this country.
When I published the letters of my mother in Paris, the actress Jeanne Moreau did a reading of them, and it was both beautiful and a revelation to many people: that there were Jews in Palestine at that time.
Now, everybody believes it all started in 1948. And the Second World War gets a lot of credit for the creation of Israel. I don’t want to give the Second World War this big credit.
People like my mother were active in preparing the infrastructure. And if this rather modest group of people around Ben-Gurion had not done what they did, maybe the country would not be here.
Whatever your politics may be, you obviously seem to love this country. Why do you remain so much better known and appreciated overseas than here?
I’m often touching a delicate nerve with my films and other work. And sometimes when you do this, not everyone is happy. I think this reaction is legitimate. It’s legitimate to agree with me, it’s also legitimate to disagree.
It’s nice for me when people agree, but I also think that if I were doing similar work in France or China, or India, or Japan – works about those places – it would also be delicate and would also provoke negative reactions in those countries.
When you work inside a boiling situation, you should expect that not everyone is going to agree with you, especially when you are trying to do work that is meaningful.
“Munio Weinraub: Traces” is on until May 31, and “Efratia Gitai: Letters” until July 30 at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod. For further information, visit