Interview with Amos Gitai

by Lesley Chow and Farah Azalea

With his long and varied body of work, Israeli director Amos Gitai has had shorts, documentaries and fiction films programmed at numerous international festivals, including this year’s Singapore International Film Festival, where he was invited to present six of his films, including his latest, One Day, You Will Understand. We asked him to reflect on having his films shown in a range of countries and cultural contexts. In keeping with this theme and his concept of “hybridity”, we also asked him about his use of international stars and cross-cultural encounters.

Q: One of your subjects is how people of different origins change in reaction to new surroundings, how their identities and self-images adapt. What particularly interests you about that sort of encounter?

A: I think the world today is a kind of a composite environment. Every one of us has ancestors who come from one place and live somewhere else. Cultural identity is kind of like a “souvenir” because the reality we live in is shattered and it doesn’t exist anymore. I think this is the material that we filmmakers can use, this fragment.

Q: You’ve been the subject of many international retrospectives, so you’ve had the chance to see your work curated in different contexts. At SIFF and other festivals, your work has been framed in terms of understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you feel that’s an appropriate presentation of your work?

A: It’s a limited view. We are all born somewhere but it doesn’t mean that our mind and our work is limited just to where we were born. I definitely do have an interest in subjects relating to my country, but I also touch subjects that go beyond that. However, it is not for me to decide how my films are presented. If I have time I would gladly come and talk about the specifics of my work, but more often than not it is out of my hands. They (programmers) are the exclusive interpreter of my work.

Q: What kind of influence have film festivals had on your career?

A: It’s the main form of distribution, since commercial distribution is becoming even more strictly commercial. Festivals give people a platform to expose themselves, and works that they wouldn’t be able to show otherwise.

Q: How do you decide which festivals to show at?

A: At this stage I’m fortunate enough to have festivals come to me and propose to show my work, and I am able to be a little selective with where I present films.

Q: Do you worry about the sociopolitical context of your works being lost at international festivals?

A: No. I think people are intelligent enough that they can “read through” things. Even if I am, say, reading a Chinese poem of the 12th century, there are some parameters within which writers can achieve their effects. People from different cultures will have different readings and see things differently but I think that’s inevitable.

Q: When you use a foreign star like Natalie Portman or Juliette Binoche, do you have to take the audience’s special interest in them into account? Do you have make sure that they don’t unbalance the film’s tone?

A: Absolutely. You have to make sure you contextualise their effect.

Q: You’ve said before that film is not such an “intimate” art, that you have to translate “your idea through a lot of filters until you finally get the results. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A: You have to work with other people. Filmmakers come to a stage where they have to consider many other factors. Usually people just think of the significance of producers, but the DOP, actors and sound recordist are just as important. My works wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for them. Film can’t be a work of a single person. The director is important as he or she gives a sense of what people need to do together, but still without a team they wouldn’t be able to achieve their goal.

Q: What kind of challenges does your style of long shots impose?

A: You definitely need to structure the shot and create a choreography with the actors.

Q: The siblings in in your recent film Disengagement had a very close, almost decadent relationship, like the one you see between characters in, say, Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. Can you tell me about the construction and significance of that relationship?

A: I wanted the great intimacy between the characters, but at the same time they had to be separated. In order to get that effect of separation I had to create the intimacy as contrast.

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