Although it was probably obvious at the time, the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin represents a pivotal point in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As prime minister, he was the last Israeli leader to actively pursue peace negotiations. He was one of the last members of the generation of Israeli leadership who had been involved in the War of Independence and every subsequent military confrontation up to his murder in 1995.
Most of all, says Amos Gitai, Rabin brought “a certain simplicity” to his public demeanor. Sitting in the lobby of a Midtown hotel, the acclaimed Israeli filmmaker says, “Rabin was a straight talker, there was no bull____, no media spin to him.”
Rabin has been at the center of much of Gitai’s recent work, even his new film, “West of the Jordan River,” which opens Friday, Jan. 26. Ostensibly a reconsideration of his 1982 documentary, “Field Diary,” the movie has as its fulcrum an interview the prime minister gave Gitai, probably the last long sit-down with a media figure that Rabin granted prior to his death. Although the film itself focuses on the current state of the nation, it is Rabin who has the last word, Rabin whose presence and spirit hovers over the carefully nuanced structure Gitai has crafted.
Not surprisingly, even 23 years after Rabin’s death, Gitai still speaks of him with a certain quiet awe.
“He is a mythic figure,” Gitai says. “This is a man who was chief of staff during the Six-Day War, who reaches the conclusion that we have to give back the territories. He understands that you have to make peace and that to make peace you have to be sensitive to the other side, to understand the economic realities that the Palestinians face. He realizes that forcing [a peace agreement] is not a long-term solution, and that humiliating the one who was conquered is unwise.”
Both in the film, which includes an interview with the current administration’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, a hard-liner who says that there is “no occupation,” and in conversation, Gitai contrasts the unsentimental hard-nosed realism of Rabin’s stance with the policies of the current leadership of Israel.
“The ability to find political solutions has diminished radically,” he says with a slight grimace. “The current government is very busy chasing enemies across the globe and alienating Jewish communities around the world. Their impact on Israeli society has been very negative and is potentially long-lasting.”
The final image of “West of the Jordan River” is a nearly empty merry-go-round, with a couple of parents with small children, twirling slowly and endlessly. Given that dark comment it isn’t hard to imagine that Gitai has reached a point in which, after nearly 40 years of making films about Israel and the Middle East, he is despairing. Not so.
Juxtaposed with the Rabin footage and interviews with politicians like Hotovely, Tzipi Livni and Tamar Zandberg, and journalists like Ari Shavit and Ben-Dror Yemini, each of whom brings a well-defined agenda to the table (and who are photographed against a blank, black background that suggests a certain timeless attitude unmoored from current realities), Gitai show us a series of small efforts by Israelis and Palestinians to reach across boundaries to acknowledge a common humanity and a tragic shared suffering.
Some of the groups involved will be familiar — and possibly controversial — with the film crew meeting with members of Breaking the Silence, the organization that encourages former IDF members to speak publically about their experiences in the West Bank; the Parents Circle, whose participants are Jewish and Muslim women who have lost family in the conflict; B’tselem, the human rights NGO that has been investigating and publicizing violations in the settlements. Not nearly as famous but in some ways even more compelling are a rabbi who has come together with a Bedouin village that has tried to build its own local school, only to fall foul of the nearby settlers, and two settler women, one of them a victim of a terrorist attack, who want to meet with Palestinian neighbors to seek common ground through their children.
Such small, incremental changes suggest a shred of hope to Gitai and belie the pessimism of the final image.
“The only source of optimism I see in Israel today is the existence of people like these and journalists like Gideon Levy [of Haaretz], who go out and seek the other point of view,” he says somberly. “People cannot be satisfied to sit home watching the news and bitching at the television set.”
At the same time, he says, filmmakers cannot content merely to repeat the platitudes of their own received wisdom.
“I’m against the kind of films made by Michael Moore, they’re demagogic,” Gitai says. “The documentary is like an act of archeology. You have to excavate and you have to be delicate. You can’t excavate with bulldozers; you have to be careful not to destroy the artifacts under the surface.”
As a result, he says, you have to “conduct contradictions.”
He smiles broadly.
“After all, human beings are about contradictions.”
“West of the Jordan River,” written and directed by Amos Gitai, opens Friday, Jan. 26 at the Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St., https://quadcinema.com.