Amos Gitai’s West of the Jordan River aims to cultivate a nuanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It documents Gitai’s travels to the occupied territories, where he interviews Palestinian families, Jewish settlers, politicians, and members of Israeli human-rights organizations. Along the way, Gitai tries to provide an “archaeology” of the lost peace process. His digging isn’t definitive. (I wish he’d’ve talked with Uri Avnery about the damage done by Ehud–“We have no partner for peace.”–Barak.) But his deep feeling for humane realist Yitzhak Rabin (and contempt for stoney ideologue Netanyahu) is right on. Rabin lives again in footage filmed by Gitai the year before that warrior and would-be peacemaker was assassinated. Other pols and pundits who turn up as talking heads in the film are less engaging than activists on the ground in the territories or kids growing up there. Gitai has an eye for innocence–the children in this movie are irresistible. But there are extraordinarily winning adults too. Thanks to Gitai’s instinct for moral beauty, I doubt there’s a Hollywood movie out now with more attractive characters than the everyday people in West of the Jordan River.
What follows is Judy Gelman Myer’s “Director Talk” Q&A with Gitai • Ms. Myers thanks Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.• B.D.
DT: A woman from the Meretz Party mentioned that politicians are excising the word occupation from public discourse in Israel. Do you think the politicians will be successful in their campaign? And if they are, what does that mean for Israel?
AG: Unfortunately, I think Netanyahu is very successful. If he continues, he will destroy the fabric of the society.
DT: The same thing is happening here in America with climate change—the Trump administration is wiping mention of it off government websites, publications, etc. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between the US and Israel right now.
AG: Of course these two regimes are best friends, based on security and ignorance. I would say that Netanyahu is a bit more crafty and sophisticated than the guy you have, but the situation with Israel is much more fragile. It’s a small country in a hostile environment, so if it continues on the road Netanyahu is proposing by applying manipulation and force, it may overplay its hand. I’m more concerned about what will happen to Israel than the US.
The government in Israel has been pretty consistent in attacking the arts and culture and education and judicial system. They’ve been more successful than Trump, if you want to go on with the comparison, because now you cannot teach a text of Mahmoud Darwish in schools anymore; the minister of education forbids anyone to teach Darwish. You are not obliged to like Darwish, but you have to know what Palestinians think. The minister of culture wants to close the only Arab theater in Haifa, my hometown. The minister of justice wants to change the parameters of the judicial system. At the moment Arabic and Hebrew have equal status. They want to make Arabic inferior to Hebrew, and I think that will have a major negative impact on Israeli society: an increase of religious orthodoxy.
DT: West of the Jordan River is subtitled Field Diary Revisited, referring to your previous film Field Diary, but for me this film felt very different from Field Diary and House. Do you agree? If so, what is the difference on the ground between then and now, and what is the difference in you?
AG: I think that when I did House and Field Diary, the degree to which Israelis were conscious that there was a Palestinian problem—or vice versa—was very low. Each side hoped that if they turned their head, the other one would disappear. I think that now both are aware the other will not disappear. They may be happy or unhappy about it, but that’s the case, so I think that’s a big difference, which may be considered to be positive. The negative aspect of it is that the capacity to act politically has diminished radically, especially after the killing of Rabin. At the moment we’re talking, you can’t see a political breakthrough in sight in this situation. These are the two main changes.
DT: And what about in you?
AG: I think I have a similar point of view to what I used to have. In a way I’m surprised when I watch the earlier films that when I see myself, with less white hair but speaking about the project I wanted to do some twenty-four, twenty-five years ago, it’s not very far from what I decided to do right now, which is to juxtapose little vignettes or episodes from the ground with interviews with political figures. I proposed it twenty-five years ago, and I think it’s up to date.
I think I feel the same. Also, in comparison, I consider that documentary is a bit like digging in an archaeological site. You have to be delicate. If you use bulldozers, you will destroy the site, so you have to go carefully.
DT: For this film you interviewed a number of human rights groups, which each had different ways of solving the problem. The one I found most interesting were the Palestinian women taking video cameras into the streets. Can you talk about them, and then your own feelings about the effectiveness of each of the groups.
AG: This film is not just a piece by a filmmaker. It’s a civil act, like what we’ve been talking about. I think that these human rights organizations—Btselem, which is the one you’re referring to, or Breaking the Silence, or the rabbis who help the Bedouins build a school, or the Israeli and Palestinian women who have lost children—they are very important to looking for a way out of this conflict. It’s the first time that Btselem allowed somebody to film the briefing of young Palestinian women on how to use video cameras. They trusted us, and we went to see them in the center of Palestinian Hebron. What I found very important, and that’s why I think these groups are really important to support, is that it also changes the status of women inside Palestinian society. It means that the women are not designated in an autocratic society just to produce children and make food for their husbands but they have an active role with the camera. So the inner dynamic of Palestinian society is changing, thanks to this group.
At the beginning, the women told me that their immediate family—sons, husbands, brothers—were very hostile to the fact that they would work with an Israeli NGO. Now that the men see what the women are doing, they support them. Some of these women told me that they come from families of 17,000 people. So it’s big, it’s a tribe. For me, every act that enhances the idea that the situation is complex is peaceful. Every step that tries to oversimplify it into a binary proposition is for war. Now these women understand that Israel is not a monolithic society; that you have some nasty guys with machine guns but you also have guys who want to help you document abuses of human rights, so they have a more complex and complete vision. I think that’s very important, because all these groups will help us build the next step beyond this very dark moment right now, the next step meaning some recognition, some searching for another modus vivendi. This is very important long-term activity.
DT: You made the argument to a group of Palestinians that there are two kinds of people in the Middle East: people who want peace and people who don’t want peace. The people who want peace include both Palestinians and Israelis, and the people who don’t want peace also include Palestinians and Israelis. Do you think that your message got across?
AG: I don’t know. I put this question to the family of a boy who was killed recently in Hebron. I also told them something that they weren’t completely happy to hear—that in my judgment, when Rabin gave back the Palestinian cities to the Palestinians and told the army to withdraw, it was the worst campaign of suicide attacks by Palestinian ultranationalists and fundamentalists inside the civil centers of Israel. This in turn helped destabilize the Rabin government, so in this way, the coalition of people who don’t want peace was active. The Palestinian ultranationalists and the Israeli extreme right both contributed to the killing of Rabin, which was finally done by an Israeli Jew.
DT: I want to go to the environmental movement for a minute. Leaders of the movement today say that it failed because it was looking to politicians for a top-down solution rather than building grassroots resistance from the ground up. I was wondering if the same might be said for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
AG: Yesterday I came to one of the screenings with Todd Gitlin, a friend of mine. He was one of the heads of SDS, the anti–Vietnam War movement with Tom Hayden. Todd’s a professor of sociology, and he wrote a very interesting book at the time of the antiwar movement, called The Whole World Is Watching. It showed that by concentrating on iconic leaders, the media broke the movement. I think this is the nature of the beast today; the media needs to pick up some characters, and so the grassroots organization is weakened.
DT: But that also applies politically: when you look for political solutions from the top, whether it’s in America or Israel, you’re almost defeating the purpose, especially when you have an administration like Netanyahu’s or Trump’s.
DT: The settler who wants to leave in peace with the Palestinians…how unusual is she?
AG: She is a minority, but there are some. We’re trying to organize a petition to defend the Bedouin school that you saw in the film, which some settlers want destroyed. Surprisingly, last week, a small group of settlers signed our petition to defend the school.
That’s why I’m a collector of contradictions. I think you now have to solicit everybody who will try to create another reality. That’s why, parenthetically, I don’t like the films of Michael Moore. They’re too manipulative and binary. I don’t want to be force-fed, so when I watch one of his movies, I even start to doubt ideas that normally I support, just because of the cinematic procedure. I like to see contradictions. When I interviewed Netanyahu’s vice minister, I let her make her argument, I respected the fact that she gave me an interview, and anyway I trusted the fact that she would kill herself with her own argument, so why should I be violent?
DT: I read a number of reviews of this film, and I’m getting the feeling that Americans don’t necessarily understand it. Are you getting the same impression?
AG: We’ll see how many people go to the Quad to see it.
DT: Does it matter if Americans understand it?
AG: Yes. I think it’s important for Americans to understand it, because I would like them—Americans, as well as the Jewish community in America—to also be active in defending these human rights organizations. Not just watching movies but being implicated. It’s like domestic violence. When your neighbors are beating each other to death, you have to take a position. If people love Israel—and I’m not objecting to their doing so—they have to help Israel save it from itself.
DT: There are times when people have to agree to disagree in order to reach a solution. Do you think that’s possible in this context?
AG: It’s a very polarized situation, and I think that this Israeli government is doing a lot of harm to the most fragile sectors of Israeli society with its racist discourse. I think basically they can destroy Israeli society itself, and obviously the Palestinians as well, with that kind of arrogance of power, which is enhanced by this American administration that is basically signing off on everything the Israelis want.
I think they should be careful. Israel is a fragile country of immigrants, and the tactics of inciting one group against another just to be reelected is not promising in terms of keeping this project going. The minister of culture cannot say that the asylum seekers from Africa are a cancer in the body of the society. If somebody would say that about Jews, there would be havoc. So especially coming with the Jewish experience in the recent century, you have some ethical obligations. That’s why I think it’s very important to engage with supporting Btselem and Breaking the Silence—all these organizations that are really doing important groundwork to create understanding. The fact that they are so attacked by this government, who wants to cut their funding or forbid them from doing any activity: I think it’s suicidal.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
AG: I would like to add another movie if people will let me. Even if they don’t.
First thanks Judy Gelman Myers for permission to reprint this Q&A which originally appeared online at “Director TALK”: http://earthwize.org/wordpress/directortalk/