INTERVIEW: Directing Chaos, Amos Gitai's "Kippur"
by Ray Privett
(indieWIRE/ 10.4.00) — Nearly 27 years ago to the day, on October 6, 1973, during Yom Kippur, the Syrian and Egyptian armies launched a devastating assault upon Israeli borders. For a few days, the destruction of the entire state of Israel loomed as a very real possibility. However, in part because of the determination of the Israeli reserves who mustered into action, the state of Israel survived, and by many accounts even won the war. But the shadow of those early days has lingered on for years.
This Thursday and Saturday nights, the New York Film Festival presents “Kippur,” a film directed and co-written by Amos Gitai — then a 23-year-old reservist, now one of the greatest and most prolific filmmakers in the world. The entire film follows the perspective of a widely read, somewhat abrasive young man who has grave reservations about the institutions in which he functions, but who is nonetheless deeply affected by what happens within them. Such careful attention to perspective is one of the many factors that links “Kippur” to such other exemplary war films as “Saladin the Victorious,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and the Sam Fuller directed “Steel Helmet” and “The Big Red One.”
Fuller was Gitai’s friend and ‘compagnon de guerre,’ acting in several films as well as a play Gitai directed while they were both living in France in the early 1990s. But to see “Kippur” exclusively as an homage to Fuller is as misguided as to see it exclusively as an exemplary war film or as one of the most finely crafted and personal films Gitai has directed. It is those things. But it is also much more, including a political treatise about the necessity for atonement, a profoundly collaborative effort, and a lament for a broken utopia that still seems worth seeking out.
Ray Privett spoke with Gitai about this latest masterpiece, an intimate, haunting, intensely photographed and scored study of the director’s experiences seeking out, participating in, and surviving the Yom Kippur War.
Kino International will release “Kippur” in early 2001.
indieWIRE: Why did you decide to return to this moment in your life?
Amos Gitai: The Kippur War was exactly 27 years ago, in October 1973. Afterward, I wanted to forget all about it. I had nightmares. I didn’t want to remember being in a helicopter rescue crew and trying to save people who were burning alive in tanks. On the fifth day of the war, a Syrian missile struck the helicopter I was in, and we crashed. People who were just a few feet away from me died in a very violent way. It was very traumatic.
But I couldn’t forget it. I kept thinking about it while I was studying abroad and making films in the 70s and 80s. But in the 80s, Israel was in a very militaristic mood. I didn’t think we needed another war film. This was another way for me to avoid the subject. Then, in the second half of the 90s, the Israelis started discussing peace arrangements, and I thought to myself, maybe there will be peace in the Middle East, and maybe it is time to return to this moment. I started to find ways to write “Kippur.” And now, finally, 27 years later, I have finished the film and am showing it.
But the Middle East is a kind of ‘feuilleton,’ a television serial. One day, it looks like things will be resolved. People are talking to each other. Then, the next day, things look apocalyptic. It’s very difficult to establish a permanent sense of what is going on. As a filmmaker, that adds a certain complication to your work, because you are obliged to have a perspective. That was a big challenge with “Kippur.” I had to establish a perspective, but I was dealing with a very chaotic subject. How do you direct chaos? Directing is usually about making order. How do you direct a non-ordered, chaotic scene?
I cannot make a film unless I have a point of view. I do not make objective images. I don’t believe in them. As individuals we perceive the world according to our position within a network of images. We are surrounded by images that are all subjective. CNN news is subjective, ABC news is subjective, Palestinian television, Israeli television — all these are subjective. We have to work out the way we move our consciousness through this series of subjective points of view. In this context a film can do something almost subversive in terms of finding a particular point of view and examining an event.
iW: Central to this process in the films you direct are your signature long takes. One of these occurs in the fourth shot of “Kippur,” in which Weinraub [Gitai’s given name] and his girlfriend are making love and smearing paint on themselves . . .
Gitai: My previous film, “Kadosh,” centers around characters engaged in ancient religious rituals whose connections to contemporary events are often quite strained. I wanted “Kippur” to be about a modern, secular, sensual ritual. They are making love, but they are also mixing these paints, and the result is this dark green. It’s like she puts military camouflage on him before he goes to war.
iW: The colors that mix together are, first, white and blue, the Israeli national colors, then red, green, and black, which, along with white, are the Arab national colors — though there is some yellow there as well. Later, when Weinraub appears on the battlefield, caked in mud, it matches graphically. And as the colors of the two nationalities that claim the Holy Land are associated with the soil itself, the association is extremely symbolic and political.
Gitai: Exactly. I like how cinema can communicate associatively like this. And then I put this scene at the end again in order to make a big sort of parentheses in which the war is situated. War is a very strong force that breaks things apart, and that is what it does here. It breaks the ritual in two. I also thought of it as an homage to John Lennon: make love not war.
iW: After the first painting scene, Weinraub joins his friend Ruso, and goes looking for the war. In this scene, Weinraub tells his gung ho comrade about how intelligent the Syrians and Egyptians are to attack on Yom Kippur, and then lectures him about the writings of Herbert Marcuse.
Gitai: Marcuse had recently been translated into Hebrew, in particular, “One-Dimensional Man” and “The End of Utopia.” And I was into it, you know. Marcuse had a very big impact on the New Left in North America and Europe in the 1960s. The Middle East, because of its nature, got these things a little bit later, and in the early 70s a group of my friends and I were very interested in it. Referring to “One-Dimensional Man” at the beginning, as our two characters are meandering along the road, was a way to suggest that they don’t know what they are getting into. At this point, it is very idle talk. But from a different perspective, I think the book is still relevant, in what it says about objects being produced while simultaneously the need to consume the objects produced.
iW: It’s interesting that you mention “The End of Utopia” because, as I understand it, many Israelis saw the 1973 war as just that. It was an intense military and psychological blow to their utopian image of their country.
Gitai: The Kippur War is the end of what Israelis like to think of as a sort of Age of Innocence. It is the end of Israelis’ believing that politicians do their best to accomplish things that are best for the country. After the war, with its heavy losses, a much more disenchanted and demystified vision emerged. Maybe the cracks that you see in Israeli society today started at that moment. It definitely paved the way for the Likud taking power in the late 1970s. It was the end of a relatively wide consensus about things under the Labor party that governed the country for the first twenty-five years.
I think its legacy still is with us, and that even some things the current Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, does are ways of collecting the pieces from its aftermath, of creating some sort of structure, and not letting small groups, religious and otherwise, enforce their agenda by political manipulation of the majority.
iW: Your signature long takes are essential to characterization, in “Kippur” and elsewhere, but I’d like to ask you about another technique you use. The end titles suggest that many of the actors were using their own names, rather than the names of characters. Similar things were done in “Yom Yom,” and I think in several other films you have directed as well.
Gitai: I wanted the actors to become intimate with the roles. I had each survivor adopt an actor. This was a way to transition between the event itself and the filming of it. The assistant pilot was killed, and the doctor was very badly wounded, and went into a coma. So they could not work with the actors who played them. But the others survived, somehow, and they got to know the actors. But the actors still had to bring something of themselves to their roles, and that is why they kept their names.
[Ray Privett works with Facets Multimedia in Chicago and contributes frequently to CINEMA SCOPE and filmfestivals.com.]