LOS ANGELES, Dec. 11 (JTA) – “My country is full of contradictions and volcanic eruptions,” Israeli film director Amos Gitai says. “We fluctuate between extremes. One morning you say peace is at hand and all problems will be resolved. The next day, it’s the apocalypse.”
No eruption in Israel’s 52-year existence did more to change the self-image of its people than the Yom Kippur War, the focus of Gitai’s latest film.
The lightning triumph of the 1967 Six-Day War had convinced many Israelis of their invincibility.
The surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on Oct. 6, 1973, “shook the arrogance of our leadership,” Gitai says. “As a people, we became much more aware of the fragility of our existence. We realized that military power is not enough, we must look for a political solution.”
Such views, and the movies and documentaries which dramatize his convictions, have made Gitai perhaps Israel’s most controversial filmmaker. In “Kippur,” he continues the tradition of touching his countrymen’s most sensitive nerves.
The film has opened to excellent reviews in New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston. It is slated to open in Chicago on Jan. 6, and in most major U.S. cities thereafter.
“Kippur” is a recounting of Gitai’s own experiences.
As the film opens, Weinraub – the last name of Gitai’s father before he emigrated from Berlin to Palestine in 1935 – walks through deserted Tel Aviv streets on Judaism’s holiest day as muffled prayer chants echo from behind the walls of small synagogues.
Suddenly, the wail of sirens breaks the silence. Weinraub jumps into his battered Fiat and, with a comrade, takes off for the Golan Heights to look for his combat unit.
In the chaos of the Syrian surprise attack, the two young men can’t find their own outfit. Instead, they link up with a helicopter rescue unit ferrying wounded men and downed pilots from the front and from behind Syrian lines.
With some of the relentlessness of the D-Day invasion scenes of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” the camera fixes on the seven-man medical team as it extracts soldiers from burning tanks and crashed planes, agonizing over whom to save and whom to leave behind.
On the sixth day of the war – which fell on Gitai’s 23rd birthday – Weinraub’s helicopter is shot down by a missile, leaving two men dead and Weinraub/Gitai with a bullet lodged within a millimeter of his spine. His war is over.
But “Kippur” is more than a combat movie, and the title itself conveys different layers of meaning. Most commonly, “kippur” means “atonement,” as in the Day of Atonement that gave the war its name.
The root word also alludes to the casting of lots, as in the Jewish holiday of Purim, and stands for the unpredictable chances of life and death in war. The word also connotes reconciliation, says Gitai.
Despite headlines reporting daily violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Gitai still can trace a psychological thread from confrontation to peace.
“The overwhelming feeling when you’re in war is not hatred, bravery or even fear, but utter fatigue,” he says. “In this film, it’s not only physical fatigue, because you’re running and carrying people, but also emotional fatigue because you see such terrible things. That’s at the heart of my war experience.
“Wars come to an end not because of the wisdom of statesmen, but because everybody just feels wiped out. When enough people have died, they see the waste of it, they stretch out their arms and say, ‘let’s do something else with our lives.’ “
That, says the director, is the deepest meaning of “Kippur,” and in it lies the ultimate hope for peace in the Middle East.
“The final peace agreement, when it comes, will be hailed as a triumph of diplomacy, but it will have been dictated by fatigue,” Gitai says. “We are doomed to have peace.”
Gitai is a stocky man with curly black hair, whose youthful looks belie his 50 years and harrowing war experiences.
His father was an architect of the Bauhaus school, one of the Nazis’ first targets in 1933, and Amos planned a similar career. After earning a doctorate in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, however, he gravitated toward film making.
His academic background, he believes, helps him to impose a certain structure and shape on diverse, often contradictory, material.
He started his cinematic career in 1980 with a trilogy – a format he still favors – for Israeli television. He ran into trouble almost immediately.
In the three documentaries – “House,” “Wadi (Valley),” and “Field Diary” – “I tried to show that Palestinians have the same attachment to the land as Israelis,” Gitai says.
The television executives refused to air the films, according to Gitai. “Field Diary,” which finally was broadcast two years ago, is the only one the Israeli public has seen so far.
Gitai’s filmography now runs to 27 feature films and documentaries, and his most recent trilogy has met with the usual controversy. Each film in the trilogy sought to portray the character of one of Israel’s three main cities, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem segment, which opened last year, is titled “Kadosh” (Holy), and is set within the city’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter. It depicts the rebellion of an Orthodox wife against a stifling, hermetic society.
“Kadosh” was bitterly criticized by many Orthodox Jews for showing what they claimed was a twisted picture of their lifestyle, but it became the first Israeli entry in 24 years at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.
Produced for $1.5 million, “Kadosh” also has been one of the few Hebrew-language movies to make it commercially.
“We didn’t threaten ‘Titanic,’ but we made some money,” Gitai says.
“Kippur,” which required a lot of military hardware, cost $4.5 million and is Gitai’s most expensive picture to date. It screened in last May’s Cannes competition and, according to Gitai, some 3,000 audience members applauded as the credits rolled and then remained silent in their seats for a full five minutes.
In a highly unusual step, the noted Egyptian director Yussef Shahine praised the film in his country’s press. Gitai hopes that Arab audiences one day will be able to view “Kippur” and recognize a mirror image of their own experience.
In late November, Gitai was honored by the Harvard University Film Archive with a retrospective of 10 of his works.
Recently, a British journalist described Gitai as “a director with a mission to tell the country of his birth the truth about its intolerances, its insecurities and its willingness to bowdlerize its own recent history.”
Gitai accepts the description, adding, “I have great compassion and passion for Israel, but I want it to remain as human as possible. I will never legitimize what Israelis may do wrong, just because I belong to them.”
Supporters of the Israeli peace movement, Gitai included, frequently are challenged to find Arab activists who demonstrate in the streets of Cairo or Damascus against their governments’ anti-Israeli policies, or make films critical of their societies’ transgressions.
“I have talked to Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian filmmakers,” Gitai says. “It’s not easy for them, but I have found some with similar attitudes” to mine, people “who want to move away from their regimes’ simplistic propaganda positions.
“To me, cinema is not just a commodity to be sold like hamburgers, but it represents a form of dialogue,” he continues. “Beneath the surface, there is already an undercurrent of a cultural dialogue in the Middle East. For instance, Israeli music is affected by Arab music. When the time comes for a real peace agreement, it can’t be just a piece of paper. There must be, at the same time, a cultural dialogue.”