Amos Gitai's Documentary Trilogy

A House in the Leading Role

Amos Gitai, probably the most important Israeli film director today, is best known for his controversial feature films. "Kadosh," "Kedma," "Kippur" and, most recently, "Free Zone" all cast a critical gaze on the Holy Land. Amin Farzanefar reports

​​Gitai's less well-known ongoing documentaries take him back again and again over the course of decades to places that serve for him as symbols of Israeli society.

In his House Trilogy, for example, he has been documenting since 1980 renovation work carried out over the years on a house in Jerusalem. Built in the late 19th century, presumably by German Knights Templar, this building has been home through the years to a wide variety of residents.

Twenty-five years ago a complete restoration prompted the filmmaker to embark on a project to compile the stories of the house's former and current inhabitants and neighbors, resulting in a fascinatingly contradictory portrait of society.

Driven out of the homeland

"House" records a visit to the building site by the previous owner, Dr. Dajani, who was driven out of his homeland when the nation of Israel was founded in 1948. And the film also shows a Palestinian stonemason who worked on the house, and was likewise forced to leave. Cowed by the presence of the camera and the current Israeli owner, he hesitates to express his anger and his true opinion of the changes the latter has made to the house.

The resentment of the displaced Arabs, the utopias and hopes of the Zionist founding generation – all of these stories are aligned and juxtaposed in this documentary. It's no wonder, then, that "House," originally produced for Israeli TV, was perceived at the time as too problematic and was discontinued.

1997 – "House" revisited

In 1997, prompted by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Amos Gitai returned to the film location once again.

"A House in Jerusalem" delved further into the history of the house and its inhabitants, again tying the house's fortunes to the history of the nation. The filmmaker speaks with the son and granddaughter of old Dr. Dajani, both likewise physicians, about their status as second-class citizens, and about their fears.

'House' (photo: www.amosgitai.com)
The house's current resident moved to Israel to provide "moral support" during the Yom Kippur War

​​Just a stone's throw away, and yet worlds apart from the new residents in "Dor Dor Vedorshav" Street, a young orthodox emigrant, whose mother and grandmother were in Auschwitz, has been driven by a feeling of spiritual emptiness to leave her life in Pennsylvania behind and move to Israel:

"The people in America feel empty," she says. Israel is for her "like a bowl of warm milk," even if the Messiah has not yet arrived. And the Palestinians? "I talked to an Arab taxi driver once."

For many, though, a more critical view has replaced the erstwhile romantic fantasies of a young and promising country. The house's current resident, who moved to Israel to provide "moral support" during the Yom Kippur War, wants to banish all of the "legends": "To think that the dream of Israel is something different from all other countries, that Israel is somehow better, is an illusion. This illusion is disappearing, and I think that's a good thing ..."

In the black & white first part of the documentary, we witness a country that was still divided into clear political factions. Years later, in 1997, "A House in Jerusalem" shows Israeli society as a puzzle put together out of countless patchwork identities, out of diverse biographies and individual destinies, in which each person must search for his own truth. This trend would continue.

Postmodern movements: "News from Home"

After speaking with producer Thierry Garrel from the Arte television station in 2005, Amos Gitai thought that it was time to revisit his theme: "News from Home" returns for a third time to the street that seems to have seen so many peculiar things come and go. Renovation work is still, or once again, taking place there.

Along with the face of the city, its residents' way of life has also seen some changes. Gitai encounters a sprawling diaspora:

'A House in Jerusalem' (photo: www.amosgitai.com)
"A House in Jerusalem" delved further into the history of the house and its inhabitants, again tying the house's fortunes to the history of the nation

​​"A young generation of Israelis, who had emigrated to Canada and London; Palestinian descendants, who used to live in Jordan or Montreal. This compact microcosm, in which various characters come onto the scene and take off again in new directions, is the thread running through my story."

The new unrest brought by the age of globalization ends up infecting the aging director; in concert with the previously static camera, which is now set into restless motion – Gitai himself leaves the location to travel further afield. In Jordan he meets up with other still-living members of the Dajani family – a family that had made its home in Jerusalem for 700 years.

And in Palestine he visits the stonemason who in "House" only dared to vent his rancor and his anguish with caution. His son-in-law, by contrast, finds clearer words with which to voice his resentment – and yet everyone wishes each other peace.

When Gitai pauses for a moment in his travels, he discovers in the house both new and old lines of movement. The woman now living there first made stops in Turkey, Sweden and Switzerland before settling in her promised land. Her mother lived in Syria, her grandmother in Crete and her grandmother's father came from Thessalonica.

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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