2006 SFJFF—Interview With Amos Gitaï
I attended the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's afternoon tribute to Amos Gitaï at the Castro Theater. They screened House, News From House / News From Home, and Free Zone, with Gitaï introducing each film and returning to the stage for Q&As afterwards. These three films were my introduction to Amos Gitaï's oeuvre and—considering he has made over 40 films—I felt woefully unprepared for our interview the following afternoon in his St. Francis hotel room. Further, seeing how put upon he was by well-meaning audience members who wanted him to somehow represent Israel and account for his homeland's recent bombings of Lebanon, I was determined not to belabor the politics and to focus instead on his filmmaking technique.
Michael Guillén: Amos, congratulations first of all on being this year's recipient of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's Freedom of Expression award. Welcome back to the Bay Area. It's my understanding, however, that you're not a stranger to the Bay Area. You actually pursued a Ph.D. in architecture at U.C. Berkeley?
Amos Gitaï: Yes.
MG: It was while you were at Berkeley that you became increasingly interested in film. I'm curious what it was at that time in the Bay Area's film culture that wooed you away from architecture? Was it a particular director or a particular film?
AG: Yesterday [after Mayor Gavin Newsome's declaration that July 23, 2006, was Amos Gitaï day in San Francisco], I said that I owed this area because I spent some of the most interesting three years of my life [here]. After being shot in a helicopter in Israel during the Yom Kippur War and the difficulty of the day-to-day situation over there, [the Bay Area] was a very open-minded oasis. I saw very sensitive people, very intelligent, and it really enriched me, sincerely. Berkeley of the late '70s, all the Bay Area and Northern California in general is maybe one of the biggest oasis in this continent of a liberal way of thinking.
MG: I've long felt we're a separate country here in the Bay Area. A small one, but….
AG: Yeah, but open and so on. So it really left its imprint on me. I remember my old professor of architecture—I think it was one of the first weeks of classes in Berkeley—he walked into the classroom and in his dry sense of humor he said, "The best lovemaking is when you can do brain fucking and body fucking at the same time. Unfortunately, I'm limited just to do the brain part." [Laughs.] Coming from a much more conservative schooling system, this was a mind opener.
MG: At that time, when you were engaged in your architectural studies, were there particular architects that you respected and emulated?
AG: No, I had my own. My father was a Bauhaus architect. He came from Berlin in the '30s and he worked directly with [Henry] van de Velde and he had as his teachers Kandinsky and Paul Klee and [Walter] Gropius and all th[is] great group, which were the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was a great school.
MG: So you already came with those great influences.
AG: Very modern, very minimalist attitude to form. My father was—in a way—my mentor on the subject of form and architecture.
MG: It interests me that your background was in architecture. When I was much younger, one of my best friends was an architect and he encouraged me to understand that, initially, architects were considered poets. They were artists. Recently there have been a few documentaries that have come out like The Sketches of Frank Gehry and others where they're returning to the premise that architects really are artists and poets.
MG: So, after your architectural training, you returned to Israel and made your first film House?
AG: Yeah, absolutely.
MG: What a perfect segue to go from architectural studies to a documentary about a house. A house, as I'm sure you're aware, has long been known as a psychological archetype of the self—the Jungians bring it up in dreams all the time—but I liked how you used the house as more of a sociological metaphor. Can you talk a little about how you were able to take your architectural training and express it through cinematic language?
AG: The point of departure is similar. In both mediums—we like to call it mediums more than professions—we start with a text. An architect gets a text; a piece of paper with words. The words say, "We would like you to design a theater with so many seats and maybe a theater with make-up rooms and so on." These are words. Now he has to take these words and make the intellectual exercise of giving it shape, of translating it into form. That's a very interesting mental thing. What evokes in a certain form? So I.M. Pei will take maybe his Chinese background and somehow he's got a very minimalist thing mixed with modernist movement. Frank Gehry always likes to refer to his grandmother; the carp preparing for the gefilte fish. Each one will take the vocabulary that he likes but the process is still translation of text to form.
In cinema we have the same problem. We have the same question. We have a screenplay but the screenplay doesn't have a shape, it's words. Now, how would you light it? What would be the cameras that you use? What's the technology? What is the rhythm? Do you make Speedy Gonzalez editing? Would you dissect it? Would you create sequence shots, more master shots? All of these are formal questions and, finally, though we like to discuss again and again the political meanings and so on and the thematic meaning of my films, I think that a lot of them are also questions about form.
MG: Yes. Listen, I'll be frank, yesterday was my first exposure to your films. It was, however, an opportune introduction to your work, because we started with your first film House, and then we went to the third in the House Trilogy (News From House / News From Home) and then to your most recent feature Free Zone. The advantage of coming in blind—as I did—is that you can often see things clearly, undeterred by preconception. I saw the form of your films, or at least small aspects of the form. I could see that your films were shaped by sound, that you were using sound and music to bracket and bookend your films. Is that a device you often consciously use?
AG: Yeah, yeah. I love sound. As I said, I don't like when cinema [reduces] sound [to] illustration because I think image is strong enough and doesn't need illustration. For me it's a pull between equals. It's like a couple, each one contributes something to the common thing—which would be the film or the couple—but the sound is autonomous. And the best way is if the sound charges the image, if it creates a kind of angular dialectical reaction.
MG: Almost like a musical counterpoint?
AG: Absolutely, like a musical counterpoint. And then the image becomes the interpreter of the sound, the sound becomes the interpreter of the image, but there is a relation of two autonomous … a meeting of these two.
MG: House starts out with that striking long shot of the stone quarry men driving chisels into the stone to fracture off slabs for eventual hewn stone construction. Each time they hit the chisel with the sledgehammer and drove it deeper into the stone, the sound had a slightly higher pitch, which created a sense of anxiety in me. Did you know it would have that sound?
AG: I visited the stone quarries but this is really a live recording, it's direct sound, it's not being reprocessed. Even recorded more than 25 years ago, it's still wonderful. I visited the stone quarries, which are south of Hebron, and witnessed this impressive way of cutting the stone in this [ancient] manner.
MG: It was a fascinating image and a fascinating sound and a great way to start that movie. Seeing your first film House and then comparing it to your later work after you had honed your craft, I took note of the maturation of your camera style. In House the camera was hand-held but in the later documentary and in your feature Free Zone it was more of a steadycam and was very hypnotic. It looks at something for a long time and then slowly, almost methodically, circumambulates around its subject. It's camera as witness. In other films cameras are often used to effect subjectivity, to look out of the eyes of one of the characters in the story, let's say, but in your films the camera is watching the characters, observant, almost meditative on what they're witnessing. Is that making any sense?
AG: Absolutely. In the Middle East we are so much subject to—not just physical bombardment—but media bombardment. I like to say that we have the largest number of cameras per square foot on the planet [laughs], all pointing at us, looking at us. Roughly, I would say we consume something like two-thirds of the world/international news of the planet. We have been—"we" I would say collectively, Israelis and Palestinians—we have been collaborating in it, in the complete intoxication of our image. We help to produce this oversimplified vision of this relationship of Israeli-Palestinian. In a way it's a very modern war. We use images as part of it. By "we" I [mean] collectively, Palestinians and Israelis, not just one side. But the suffering of each side becom[es] the peon for the future negotiation.
If you're a filmmaker, the only thing you can do, [is to have a] subversive attitude. You have to turn your back [on the media] and say, "I'm not going to be the United CNN, nor the Israeli television, nor the Palestinian one, nor the French, etc., etc., they're all similar images. I'm going to show you something different." And you—my public—you will decide for yourself. And then the question—to go back to what you said—the question of rhythm, this [quality] you call "hypnotic", is essential. Because you say, "I'm also going to deliver it not just by what you are saying, [but] by the way that you say it, by the form. I'm going to show you sequence shots, master shots, so that you will know that I am not cutting and pasting bits and pieces; I'm showing you a complete situation. So you can assemble the pieces in your own brain. It will maybe haunt you for some time, stay in your mind. Next time you will watch the evening news, you will still keep a trace of what I showed you and then it will make this very slow gradual work of proposing an alternative reading." So the question of form is essential to it. You cannot just say [it] by putting [forth] the good politically correct argument. You have to speak about form, about rhythm, about things which are essential, they're not just [an] ideological or political solution. You have to appeal to the subconscious of the rhythm of the way that you like to perceive these fragments.
MG: I imagine that's the artistry of it. You really do become subversively personal. I told myself on the way here to interview you that I wanted to avoid talking about current political events and focus on what is subversively personal in your films. I mean, that's not to say your films are not political. How could they not be political? That's obvious. What is political or what is subversive about them is precisely the attention paid to the human face of things and the variety of opinion.
MG: Your films are also purposefully enigmatic. You don't provide easy, ready answers. As I was watching you interact with your audiences yesterday I was a little bit embarrassed because I thought these people—though well-meaning—were being so literal, asking simple-minded, vapid questions, and you seemed to almost get taciturn, like, "Please…."
AG: [Laughs.] That's it. You got me. [Laughs.] The questions after the first film House were the best. Also, you don't want to enter the normal polemic because—even by entering it—you kind of legitimize it. So I cut them very short and that's it.
MG: Plus it's a departure from your art, which is what you're really trying to present to people.
MG: With regard to your use of long, unbroken shots, which are actually—like I said—mesmerizing to me, you got a lot of press for the opening shot in Free Zone where Natalie Portman cries for about seven minutes. For some reason I was under the mistaken assumption that she was going to cry for half an hour and so I had braced myself to endure this woman crying. But it was only seven minutes, which wasn't too bad, and made easier by that wonderful song you used [Chad Gadya—alternately Khad Gadya—performed by the Israeli pop star Chava Alberstein], which staged the considerations that were going to be proposed in the film, readying our minds to think. I like that you challenge your audience; that you don't provide ready answers.
AG: Essentially, I think that's the place where you were born and how you grew up. I love people. I'm not into dissecting or categorizing them because I've seen people from this side or the other side being wonderful or being terrible. The division of everybody being all angelic or devilish [is something] which the evening news will change, every night they will twist it around, one night we Israeli are angelic and the others are terrible bastards and the next night it will be the other way around. I think we are both angelic and devilish and this is [the contradictory nature of being human]. I like to consider that my spectator is intelligent and will read through the images and do the work. This is the experience I like myself as the spectator. I like to interpret films. I don't like just to consume them, just to swallow them in one gulp. They demand something of me. I have to be an interpreter. Other filmmakers, they open [their film] and say, "Come Amos, you are invited. I respect that you will figure it out."
MG: The strategy then of the long take was reminding me some of Tsai Ming-Liang's work where I often think, "What am I being shown?" We are so used to rapid editing through MTV aesthetics that I suspect it has damaged brains so that they can no longer ….
AG: …have the patience.
MG: Have the patience and make their own associations. We're fed—like you said—we're continually fed so that we don't have time to do anything other than just take it in. The long shots provoke inquiry. In that long shot of Natalie Portman crying, did you give her direction?
AG: By the way, I do. There was one very nice thing that Cahiers du Cinema did. They asked me to give them for their internet site this shot that you saw with my instructions. The instructions were a mixture of Hebrew and English and they subtitled it. You can see in a way the unclean version because I speak constantly to my actors—it's a nightmare for the sound editor—but I speak to them constantly when I'm shooting. I want them really focused and, when they become too classicized, I want to derail them a bit so that they don't give me the tricks that they know to do because I'm allergic to these kind of tricks. [Laughs.] So when I see it coming, I kind of destabilize them a bit. Those who are intelligent understand that I am trying to get something really fresh and not too premeditated. The instructions are never mechanical. I can tell her, "Listen, why don't you turn your head to the left for the light" or "open the window now." When I feel that the rhythm is right.
When you finally see my film Kippur, which I did on this war episode I was in when I was shot down, I had th[ese] very big loudspeakers and I used to speak to my actors all the time so they feel a human presence. They don't feel left out there.
MG: Speaking of Kippur and the incident—which horrified me when I heard it yesterday—of your being shot down by a Syrian missile on your birthday, I understand, how did that influence you in terms of where you needed to go next? Such a horrific event could have traumatized some people to become inactive.
AG: Yeah. In this helicopter some people were killed and others were badly traumatized. Since it was on my birthday, I had the good ingredients to be just a pure mystic [laughs] or all strictly religious, or whatever, which was a big temptation. Because statistically, when a helicopter is shot while flying there are almost no cases [of] people stay[ing] alive because normally one of the bullets would hit the petrol and then it would explode in the air. The helicopter cannot even glide. It's not like a plane that, when you shoot it, in some cases the pilots manage to glide and then parachute. In a helicopter you don't have parachutes. You just fall down. In the dry language of the air force, they announced to me that this was an exceptional statistical error that we were alive. [Laughs.]
MG: But you knew it was mystical?
AG: No. I knew that I should … that if it is mystical, I should give it the meaning. And maybe the meaning is that I should tell some stories. I think that's maybe one of the first things that pushed me gradually to become a filmmaker.
MG: I loved the coda to News From Home. I was wondering if maybe you could even repeat it?
AG: It's a rabbi called the Baal Shem in East Europe and I tell the story which is I think beautiful. It really encapsulates our modern experience. In a way I think that all of us in modernity, whether we are Israeli or Palestinians, we are unrooted, we are displaced. The entire planet is composed of displaced people. We are so obsessed with ourselves. We Israeli and Palestinians, we think we are particular, but we are not. The entire humanity is displaced. People are just left with little fragments of the biographies and souvenirs of their ancestors and so on. I think it's part of this age of humanity. People have to make sense. They have to make the great new meanings into this nomadic mental existence. It's not easy. I think that cinema, for me, is a form that I can premeditate and the story of the Baal Shem it tells the story about the rabbi—it's roughly in the Middle Ages—who used to know a spot in the forest and he would go to this spot in the forest and he would light a fire and make a [prayer]. If he would have some question or some trouble he would request that it would be resolved and when he would come back, it would be resolved. A generation later the rabbi knew where the spot was, didn't know how to the light the fire, could make the prayer and he would come back and the question he asked would be resolved. A generation later the rabbi didn't know anymore the spot in the forest, didn't know anymore how to light the fire, he could make the prayer. Then his own generation the rabbi didn't know anymore the spot, he didn't know how to light the fire, he didn't know which prayer to use, but he could tell the story.
MG: I love that. Thank you. It reminds me of the poet who wrote that the universe is not created from atoms, it's created from stories.
AG: That's good.
MG: I love the storytelling force behind cinema. My favorite movie makers are storytellers. I'm so glad you used that parable in News From Home. What also really came out for me in this initial introduction to your work was your abiding compassion. By focusing on the diaspora in the final chapter of the House Trilogy and how—as you infer—all of us are essentially displaced, you come off radical. You help us understand the subsequent owners of this house had come from all over and, like you said, brought with them fractured histories, faded photos that they were happy to share in trying to piece together their lives. I imagine that perspective is not looked upon fondly by Israelis who want to particularize and emphasize their own suffering or their own plight.
AG: Yeah, I think that in this conflict in this region we are into strict ethnocentric presentations. Each group thinks that only they have reason and the other one is completely wrong. I tend to think that, first of all, it's not true. We have to acknowledge each others' attachments. Unless we do it, this will never be resolved. The political solution does not necessarily equal this recognition. We think we can find other solutions than bringing this metaphorical house to its original owners. It's now too late. I don't think we can give it back to its original owners if we don't want to create new tragedies. But we have to recognize that they have attachment to the same house. I think the recognition is important in order to facilitate a reconciliation and, without it, there will never be reconciliation. So when I say it, some of my countrymen don't like me to say that we have attachments. We feel related to this place. Each one with his own argument and own discourse and own narrative, but we both have attachments, and I think it goes through this recognition. Too much ethnocentric[ism], just being obsessed with only we are right and the rest of the world is wrong is a poison to anyone.
MG: My final question: at home I have the Golem Trilogy waiting for me to watch. It's my understanding that one of them features Sam Fuller?
MG: What's your association with Sam Fuller? How did that come about?
AG: I don't know if you have read his autobiography? He dedicates to me a chapter. And the chapter is very sweet. We had really great relations when he was living in Paris in the '80s.
MG: You did a play with him?
AG: I did a play which was an adaptation of Josephus Flavius' The Jewish Wars and [Fuller] was the narrator of it. It was the opening of the Venice Biennale. He participated in two films and we became extremely friendly. In Kippur I thanked him because he always pushed me to do Kippur after I told him my story one evening. He was such a burst of [an] independent way of thinking and a really great person. Myself, I never studied films, I only studied architecture. At this phase when I was living in Paris I tried to surround myself with people who would be my private teachers. My first DP was Henri Alekan who was the DP of Cocteau, with Chaplain, with Abel Gance, who did a lot of films of Marcel Carné, who did The Beauty and the Beast of Cocteau. My first sound recorder was Antoine Bonfanti who did 15 films with Godard. They really taught me a lot. I was doing cinema while these people were.
Sam Fuller I called and he recorded it in his book and he said he came out of a stroke and he was healing in his home. And then he said the phone rings and on the line was Amos Gitaï. Amos says to me, "Sam, I would like you to be in my next film." And Sam says, "Amos, I just came back from the hospital." And I, apparently then—I feel a bit embarrassed—I said to him, according to his recollection, "Don't worry, you have to play the role of a dead man." [Laughs.] And Sam, with his great sense of humor, he writes of this episode and of our voyage later on to Sicily and to Venice to do this play.
When I was working on Kippur, Sam told me his experience when he did The Big Red One, which was shot in Israel. He said, "When you have a question, when you do a war film and you have a question, okay you can look at some existing war films but the best is try to dig into a memory. Don't be satisfied with what is already made. And it was really good advice. On the set of Kippur—which was quite a big set—each time I kept this memory. The last years of his life he moved back to Los Angeles and he invited me to stay with him. I stayed with him a week in his home. It was great because Bravo or the Independent Film Channel showed a retrospective of his films. I was sitting in the salon with him and Christa Fuller. I watched six or seven films—Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, and so on—and each time Sam would make for me a private—again, it was just the three of us—voiceover of circumstances where he shot each film. So it was really great.
MG: Wow. Well, that education has paid off because now you've become the educator, Amos. I want to thank you very much for the time. I'm really looking forward to learning more about your films.
AG: Thank you.