The Architecture of Filmmaking: An Interview with Amos Gitai
Modern artists have often discovered that negative publicity helps their careers by publicizing their works and winning them sympathizers as well as foes. Amos Gitai, a forty-year-old Israeli filmmaker, established a reputation with his first documentary, House (1980), in part because Israeli television, which had commissioned the fifty-minute work, refused to air it.
"Israel is a very passionate place in which the significance of an event is always exaggerated, "Gitai told me in January in Paris, where he now lives. "When the film was not broadcast, there was an hysterical reaction. And since the film is rather serene, I was always surprised at the hysteria."
A slow and detailed examination of a construction site in Jerusalem, House reveals the complacency with which some Israeli Jews have taken over buildings that once belonged to Palestinians. Interviews, rather than a voice-over commentary, shape the viewer's relationship to the story.
"When the film was shown and I saw the reactions, I realized that when you touch things in a society that are subconscious, people are much more sensitized than when you make big declarative statements which they already know how to digest, because they have heard them on television," Gitai said to me.''When a Palestinian worker uses language that is much more metaphorical and sophisticated than an Israeli professor of economics, the governor of the National Bank, they feel really threatened because the cliche of who is primitive and who is not is disintegrating."
European festivals and journalists sympathetic to the fate of Palestinians gave a good deal of play to House and Gitai's two later documentaries on the relationships of Jews and Palestinians in Israel, Wadi (1981) and Field Diary (1982). Indeed, it seems as if every sign of censorship—like the hands of Israeli soldiers that repeatedly cover the lens in Field Diary—has eventually enhanced Gitai's reputation. Wiser opponents might have made his career more rocky by giving him less to complain about. What Herbert Marcuse called "repressive tolerance " is often effective in nullifying dissent: When filmmakers get no response (or very little) to sparse screenings or off primetime airings, then their works may well be doomed to obscurity. One could argue that silence, rather than attacks, is the real bane of a director's existence.
From his experience with his trilogy on Israel, Gitai evidently learned he could handle polemics. "When people in various situations want you not to look at a certain reality, when they want to shut off the camera, then the instant reaction is to keep it on," he told me. He has gone where journalists aren't welcome: part of Pineapple (1983), a documentary about Dole, was shot in the Philippines under martial law. And he has broached subjects that are often passed over in silence: in Bangkok Bahrain (1984) he talks with Thai prostitutes about their families, from whom they hide their profession.
Yet any capsule summary of a Gitai documentary is a disservice because of the complexity of his works, which are dense with interrelated themes. By using dissonant music, associative editing and long takes, he avoids the pseudo-objectivity of television news reporting. Yet Gitai is more financially successful than many documentary filmmakers because he has managed to get the backing of European television networks for his projects. The irony of working for television against its stylistic norms is one of the subjects of this interview.
Perhaps you could explain how you came to make documentary films?
I didn't start with a very methodological attitude towards documentaries because I wasn't a cinephile as a child. I was more interested in painting or architecture than in cinema. I was a student of architecture and my title in society was "a guy who is doing his Ph.D." I managed to drag out my studies for eight years or so and made little Super 8 films. I didn't need a justification for them, which was very useful—now I know that when you make films as a full-time job, you enter a structure which pervades all you do.
And were you still working on your dissertation for the University of California at Berkeley when you made House and Wadi in Israel?
Yes. I think you need this ambiguity in a country like Israel which is almost like an extended clan, with small groups of people who know each other intimately. It has all the wonderful things we read about communities and all the repressive aspects. It doesn't like internal dissent or different ways of looking at things, because this is the family and you're not supposed to tell stories to others, etc. I think it was good to have this cover of being a student of architecture because otherwise the pressures would have been much more direct.
Is the Arab-Israeli conflict, which you treat in House, Wadi, and Field Diary, the subject of many other films by Israeli directors or is it more or less taboo?
You find more and more Israeli films that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian problem, but they are often melodramas—a love affair between a Palestinian girl and an Israeli boy, etc.—forms derived from Dallas. I don't like the idea of divorcing the cinematographic aspect from progressive claims.
House doesn't just contain talk about the relationship between Palestinians and Jews. Your interviews in the film demonstrate that communication between these groups can be possible. I as a viewer was very aware that some trust bad been established between a Jewish Israeli filmmaker and Palestinian interviewees. How do you see the function of interviews in your films? And how do you approach interviewees?
In House, when people tell you little fragments of their personal biographies, you gradually construct a concept of this house and this conflict. My films have a concrete, realistic dimension, but they are also metaphorical. The object creates a kind of spine for the film which relates all the elements to each other. Actually, this idea came out of an earlier film I wanted to do of people working in a workplace around a machine. They would have specific biographies and the machine would connect them. But I found the house more interesting because it has its own biography. The next phase was to look for a specific house. I asked several contractors in Jerusalem to show me what they were building. When I came to one house, I knew this was it because the street was named "Each Generation and Its Masters." Then we had to go to the registry of deeds, take out the certificate of sale for the house, and trace people who were dispersed all over the place. I Feel it's a dynamic, organic process.
Most of the films which are more interesting, successful or revealing are not exercises you can repeat or for which you can make a master plan. One of the reasons I left architecture and went into cinema was that I felt that, at the moment, architecture is based too much on master plans. When you look at some indigenous forms—like a Greek village or a beautiful Gothic cathedral such as Chartres—you know that they reflect a process of construction. I don't believe you can divorce the fabrication of a film or building from its conception—it's one continuous process. You have to work on the conception, modify and re-elaborate it while shooting. You can't just come to people with a piece of paper and ask them to fulfill the slot you gave them. They have to dig into themselves and bring you a definition of a situation that the media spend hours trying to elaborate. And they have to do it in a condensed and intimate way—it demands a lot of concentration. One reason I did this story and these characters is that they were people who had never been interviewed before. I think you can hear segments of what they say in the media—the problem is to relate them.
I was surprised at the way you introduced one of your favorite themes—censorship—in Bangkok Bahrain. Did you know before the interview that the middleman who ships Thai men to Saudi employers had once been involved in censorship?
No. I think that's the great fun of documentary film : when it's not scripted and you reveal things. It's striking how condensed the stories are. I think a lot is really intuitive. I asked a guy to find me an agency that exports workers and he said we can't go to this place or that but we can go here. So we came in and, while changing reels, I asked him,''What did you do before? " And he said, "I was a cinema censor."
In Bangkok Bahrain, you reveal two international exchange systems in Thailand. One, the exporting of That men as''guest workers" to Saudi Arabia, is a relatively familiar phenomenon. The other, the hiring of Thai women as prostitutes by foreign "sex tourists,"is a more taboo subject. You must spend a fair amount of time looking for topics that are not too obvious around which you can build a film.
When I do a film like Pineapple or Bangkok Bahrain, on a topic I don't know well beforehand, I like a period of just reading. I want to know where I'm moving. Then I never take these books with me. Shooting requires a lot of concentration because each little string leads you to another and another. There's a labyrinth that you have to follow without being too uptight or too strict with yourself.
For instance, when we started Pineapple, we found that Castle and Cooke were two missionaries who went to Hawaii to convert the natives, and the religious aspect became clear: before you control people physically or economically, it is important to have the missionary in the Philippines convert their perception of reality. If I were planning the film on paper, I'd say religion isn't the subject—it's the pineapple, the directors of the com pany, etc. But it's all interwoven.
How did you come to the pineapple as the focus around which a multinational system revolves?
In my Ph.D. period in the late 1970s a lot of friends talked to me about multinationals. But it seemed a kind of abstraction. I remember a precise moment: I was standing in the apartment of a friend of mine and there was a pineapple can there. I peeled off the label, which I still have, and it said: "Produced in the Philippines, packaged in Honolulu, distributed in San Francisco." And then I looked very closely and it said on the label: "Printed in Japan." So everything was there; everybody was present on this label. Later on I made a xerox of it and said to someone in Swedish television, "Here is the script. There is the story."
It seems you are increasingly interested not just in structures like the workers who have some relation to a machine, but in multinational systems of exchange. I gather you made Brand New Day because the Eurythmics asked you to make a film about the group. But were you attracted by the idea of exploring the mix of cultures when an English group, with roots in American musical traditions, visits japan?
Yes, there are some rules that I've made for myself and one is that I will not make a documentary in a country I don't know, if it's shot just in that country. I think that's much more the work of the local filmmakers. I don't like films done from an external, folkloristic point of view about a place. But I'll make a film if it's about a structure or social system which shapes the multinational world we live in today. Then I'm entitled like anyone else to do it.
I wonder if moving around gives you some freedom to violate taboos, as you do. If an independent filmmaker -or a freelance journalist, for that matter—is situated in one place and has to keep coming back to the same sources for information, he or she may well enter into a tacit agreement not to say anything unexpected. And if a filmmaker or reporter works for a large organization, he or she must be careful not to ruin contacts for the next person stationed in that location.
What you said is very interesting. Before I went to Bangkok or the Philippines, the television stations involved wanted me to meet various people—the opposition leaders in exile, etc. I said "no" because I think you have to be very careful not to be attached to anyone.
The role of a documentary film maker is very delicate and when you walk into a community or group of people who are living in a certain situation, it's not good to enter with the illusion that you are there to stay forever, because you are just passing through. You are an observer; you will not be there tomorrow. It's better to make it clear—it's easier for them—otherwise you become too important to their existence. And it's better for the filmmaker not to make bombastic declarations about the affinities he has or doesn't have.
You've talked about the difficulties filmmakers have making documentaries for television because 1V doesn't like alternative forms, but you've been very successful in getting commissions from television. Most of your recent films are co-productions between your company and various European channels. How do you explain this—by the fact that there are people in television who are sympathetic to your approach?
Yes, some people in television are open, but they are becoming more and more rare. And sometimes compromises are demanded. Pineapple wouldn't have existed if French television hadn't stepped into the project. Swedish and Finnish television were committed but I went all over Europe and people said, "It's wonderful," but didn't give me any contracts. After a year I said this was never going to happen. But the Swedes sent me to somebody here [in France] and she said, "We will do it." In exchange, they required that the film be tailored to the demands of television : [that meant] sixty minutes long and they would have the right to have their own journalist reuse the material. I signed because I knew that without them I wouldn't have a film. But I had one important condition: they would not touch the negative. So French television broadcast one version, which I edited with them, and I was left with my film which was shown elsewhere.
What were some of the differences between the versions, besides length? Did French television let you keep the dissonant soundtrack that helps make Pineapple a disquieting film?
No, that's one of the things that disturbed them in Pineapple. But Channel Four transmitted it, the Dutch transmitted it, the Swedes and everyone else.
My films are, by and large, associative, and sound is very important in supporting this kind of structure because, for me, sound is something that evokes associations. Pineapple has a kind of Rashomon structure: the story is retold and retold and maybe in the end we don't know exactly what a pineapple is but we know some other things. In Pineapple, sou nd is an element which comes and disappears and reopens the story again and again. Sometimes the sound can work in opposition to the image; sometimes it can support it. It is rich—which doesn't mean you have to have a lot of different kinds of music. You can use one theme and dislocate it so it puts a question mark over something, supports something else, and creates a certain feeling when it goes together with a sunset. In your mind a sound is associated with a certain image and when it comes in contact with another one, it reopens the story on another level: it recalls a fragment of the image you saw before and creates a friction between this memory and the new image.
Do you have problems getting television to co produce your projects because of the artistic or experimental aspects of your previous films?
Absolutely. These days the documentary belongs more and more to the current affairs department, meaning news and all the mystification that goes with journalism: that this is the truth, that we are reporters, that we have to stand with the microphone in front of the camera, that we have to cover images with text, etc.
Fiction filmmakers always complain about the effects of television, but the documentary has really suffered the most. Television created one genre, the reportage, which became so dominant that any other documentary form is almost automatically ilegitimized. But when you look at a film like The Blood of Animals (Le Sang des Betes) which [ George] Franju made in 1948, you see that he didn't have to speak about the Second World War. He just went to a slaughterhouse and filmed how you transform a cow into a sausage.
The author would like to thank Wendy Lidell of International Film Circuit in New York City, Bo Smith of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the library of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris for their help in the preparation of this article.
Karen Rosenberg often writes on politics and culture for magazines and newspapers in the U S. and Western Europe. She is a contributing editor of The Independent, film and video monthly published by the Foundation for Independent Video and Film in New York.