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Arts & Culture Trip to Jordan Sparked Idea for Israeli Director’s Latest Film

April 3, 2006
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An American, an Israeli and an Arab walk into a car. They should have looked where they were going, mainly because once the three women meet in Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone,” an argument begins and lasts, with some warmth and some rancor, for most of the movie. The concept for the film began with Gitai’s own trip to Jordan’s free zone. A driver that worked on his shoots told Gitai he had a partner in Jordan with whom he fixed used cars and crossed the border to sell them to security companies that work with Iraq.

“The idea sounded to me like science fiction,” Gitai said during a recent interview with JTA. “So I asked, Do you mind if I come with you to follow this trip? And we left Tel Aviv, we crossed the border and we came close to the border of Iraq, to this area without taxes, where all these different people do transactions of cars got mixed — Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Saudis and Iraqis.”

The politics-free commercial zone intrigued Gitai. A man of medium height, with thick, graying hair, he was dressed casually during the interview, even sporting a plastic green watch.

“It’s an opposition to what we see on the evening news — on the evening news, we just see violence and hatred and these guys throw stones and the others throw bombs and so on, and here I saw a completely different attitude,” he said. “When I saw these people in the free zone, I thought, Didn’t they see the evening news? Aren’t they aware there is a war going on?

“And when I came back, I called my co-writer,” he said.

In the film, he turned the three men into women as “a proposition, an allegory — so what happens if women take over?”

The driver became Hanna (Israel’s Cannes-winning Hanna Laszlo); the partner, Leila (Hiam Abbas of “Paradise Now”); and Gitai, the observer, “became someone much more beautiful, Natalie Portman.”

Serious topics — the refugee issue, Israeli economy, terrorism — lace the narrative. During one exchange, Leila asks Hanna, a former Sinai settler living in the Negev, about her real origins. Hanna retorts that she is “from Auschwitz,” and returns the question, to which Leila replies: “Palestine.”

Yet, these issues don’t really weigh down the film due to its random, episodic nature and its focus on the women and their business exchanges and personal concerns. There is more of a feeling that one is witness to a very odd, hectic day or two in these women’s lives.

Compared to his other movies — “Kadosh,” about sexuality in Israel’s fervently Orthodox community, and “Kippur,” which focused on the 1973 Yom Kippur War, are among them — Gitai calls this one “comic relief.”

The comic relief begins with seven minutes of Portman’s character, Rebecca, crying near the Western Wall, in a somewhat claustrophobic closeup. The young, naive American has just broken up with her fiance.

Having nowhere to go and desperate for distraction, she convinces Hanna, an Israeli cabbie, to take her to Jordan, where the Orthodox matron is determined to settle some business for her husband. There they meet Leila — a modern, middle-aged Palestinian refugee whose proud, elegant bearing cannot hold up — and an unwilling road trip begins.

Discomfiting as the crying scene is, Gitai quotes a reviewer after Cannes who said that what the Oscar-nominated Portman did during those “seven minutes of ‘Free Zone,’ she didn’t do in the entire ‘Star Wars.’ ” He hastened to praise her acting, and added that her role in “Free Zone” was “very delicate, because she is an observer.”

Laszlo’s character is anything but an observer. Many Israelis identified with her: “There is the sense of humor, the obsessiveness,” and pushiness, Gitai said. Yet, she is “a very warm person, very caring, very effective, she has ways of dealing with this situation in which she finds herself — sincere.”

The director, also a documentary filmmaker, uses the style in this work because it “makes fiction more realistic.”

He protests the search for a message in his film, then breaks down. “We, people of this region, we don’t need to be in agreement. We don’t need to be identical. We are not obliged to be like the Palestinians, or the Jordanians, we can be different, and they don’t need to be like us. But we don’t need to kill each other each time that we don’t agree.

“I think its true about nations, it’s true about couples, in families,” he said. “People don’t have to apply violence each time they disagree. And I think that the reason I say it’s comic relief is because these ladies, these wonderful three actresses, they dispute, but nobody’s taking a gun,” he said. “There is a kind of sistership that is being built with the gaps which divide them.”

“Free Zone” opens April 7 in New York and Los Angeles. It will open later in selected North American cities.

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