“And despite the clamors and the violence, we tried to preserve in our hearts the memory of a happy sea, of a remembered hill, the smile of a beloved face.” — Albert Camus from ‘Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays’
As I watched Amos Gitai’s latest ‘A Tramway in Jerusalem’ with the usual anticipation I dedicate to all the works of the visionary Israeli filmmaker, I looked for the funny. After all, Gitai himself, in his director’s notes called Tramway “an optimistic and ironic metaphor of the divided city of Jerusalem”. In the synopsis of the film, the word “comedy” is used yet when I watched ‘A Tramway in Jerusalem’, more than once, I cried. Long, perfectly needed tears.
The film world premiered out of competition at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.
So is Gitai, with this haunting, mockingly scathing satire trying for one of those Kahlil Gibran moments — where the deeper the wound, the bigger the love your heart can hold? Only time will tell but I am always glad to sit across from the auteur, as I did once again in Venice, because he is a true believer in the power of one. You know, the amount of good one, single, lone individual can perform in changing the world for the better!
‘A Tramway in Jerusalem’ is a collection of moments and personages that interweave through a long journey on the Jerusalem tram. Italian mixes with Yiddish, while Hebrew and Arabic are spoken and even French. The actors include Mathieu Amalric and his son Elias, Hanna Laszlo, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Yael Abecassis, Pippo Delbono and even Menahem Lang in a small cameo — the man from the phenomenal ‘M’ which screened recently in Locarno.
Following are a few questions I posed to Amos Gitai, and his answers — ever honest, sometimes painfully so. Can cinema change the world? It does change my world each and every day I spend in the company of people who believe in a different reality.
What made you want to shoot on a Jerusalem tram?
Amos Gitai: I always wanted to make a film inside a Sherut [Israeli/Arab bush taxi]. Yet the tramway, in this really tense city, offers a pocket of tolerance. And they employ more than 50% Palestinians. [The governing body behind it] set the rules from the beginning, they said “if you want to shoot it on the real line, you’ll have to obey the schedule. If you stop your tramway, you’ll stop all the train movement in Jerusalem and that’s not possible. But if you want to fit into our schedule….” I chose this option.
So you used one of their cars?
Gitai: We had a designated train for us. The only problem was normal citizens wanted to get on our train.
You call this film a comedy, but I found that there are snippets of funny moments enveloped in a film that hits somewhere other than the funny bone. Deep into the despair of this country. Why did you call it a comedy?
Gitai: Because I wanted to force you to laugh. Maybe I didn’t succeed. As [Ernst] Lubitsch [did], you reminded me, at some point you have to inject the irony. I’ve made many films that say more harsh things, even the film that preceded this in the festival ‘A Letter to a Friend in Gaza’, to evoke thinking but not as a preacher. I think I’ve told you in the past, even if I am in a film festival, I don’t like the attitude of Michael Moore about documentaries. Because I don’t like to be manipulated. So even if I agree with his ideology and statements I don’t like the form. When I see this kind of very efficient form I start to doubt that the ideas are right. If the ideas are right, you don’t need to force me. Give me some space, trust me. I will get to the point. Otherwise it seems like propaganda even if it’s for a good cause.
You have to encourage people to take with you a voyage of thinking but that’s it. Not be more forceful.
Do you think pain can help in finding the humor and vice versa?
Gitai: Sometimes. I suppose that when I was shot in a helicopter during the Yom Kippur War, the others who came out of it were either dead or crazy or wanted to commit suicide. I took a different decision, I said from this point I will say what I want to say. Period. I think it’s the way you process dramatic events.
The scene with the two women, one Palestinian with a Dutch passport, the other an Israeli with all kinds of nationalities. Is that a comment on the age we are living in right now?
Gitai: Also, the best meetings are not started as a political gesture, rather sincere gestures that are part of the “quotidian”, day to day. And the day to day teaches us to avoid politics. But not because we have a preconceived idea, like from this point on we are going to just love Palestinians. No. This produces fake and even reverse racist attitudes because there are no angelic figures. My Palestinian friends share with me the idea that there are things to be criticized everywhere, everyone. When you speak this way, they know that when you are concerned politically, you are sincere. It’s not politically correct…
Do you think, as Roberto Minervini pointed out during the festival, the problem lies with the liberal leftists, not the absolute right which is quite clear in their boundaries. The ones we think are safe, are the ones to watch. Is it the same in Israel at the moment?
Gitai: Maybe I don’t know exactly what he means by that but it’s true that there is a big erosion in Israel in what is called the left. I don’t even know what it is anymore. I think when they killed Rabin, they picked the right guy to kill. In a couple of years it will be a quarter of a century since his assassination and we are still in the aftermath, the absence of somebody who had the integrity and the simplicity to face the problems. And the other leaders of the Labor Party are so weak and unconvincing. It’s different than America, but they try to flatter the right wing voters. When you start on this road, you integrate right wing arguments into the left wing party — why would people want a photocopy when you can vote for the original.
Do you expect ‘A Tramway’ to have an impact of some sort?
Gitai: Culture is cumulative, not about changing things immediately.
And finally, what do you want people to take away from ‘A Letter to my Friend in Gaza’?
Gitai: The main issue for me on the Israeli Palestinian conflict — now I’m talking in politics — it’s not so much about Jerusalem, which people talk about so much. Jerusalem is not so difficult to resolve. Because even today if you were in Jerusalem, the city is really divided. East Jerusalem is really Palestinian and even the Israeli right wing know that in some configuration they will need to be a part of whatever it is, whatever is the configuration. The lines exist, de facto.
The main issue is what the Palestinians call “the right of return”. And obviously the solution is difficult because you cannot just reverse history. But you have to deal with the question. It will not disappear, the Israeli politicians thought that if they would do a deal with Egypt, a deal with Jordan or with Syria… They will not vanish, the Palestinians, the camps are becoming bigger, there is misery. The Jewish memory is strong, it is passed from one generation to the next. For thousands of years. At least they should have some respect to what seventy years can do.
I think they have to confront the issue. And the longer they wait the worse it gets. Now Israel may be strong but it will not last forever. And the problem will resurface eventually when the Israelis are not so strong. What will they do then…
It is urgent that they make a real effort to deal with the problem. It’s not certain that they will ever solve it but they have to at least deal with it. It’s not going to evaporate. They have to really take act and this film is about thinking about this, that’s the main question. Which of course, is considered by the Israeli powers to be completely illegitimate.
Not all Israelis are evil and all Palestinians are angelic. I’m against a kind of over simplistic presentation. As you know I’m an admirer of contradiction. I’m a collector of contradictions.