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'Kadosh' director Amos Gitai is no stranger to controversy

by Naomi Pfefferman

March 9, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Renowned Israeli director Amos Gitai acknowledges that his film, "Kadosh," raises ire in segments of the observant community. "It's critical of certain elements of Jewish tradition that I consider to be reactionary," says the filmmaker, whose movie tells of two oppressed Orthodox women in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim. "But it's not a total denial. It's precise."

Specifically, the film explores what Gitai calls the "great contradiction" of all the world's great monotheistic religions: the subjugation of women. And no, he's not sorry that "Kadosh" doesn't offer more diverse portraits of observant women. "I don't think art is about balance," he says, fixing a reporter with laser-like brown eyes during an interview at the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel. "Art cannot be politically negotiated."

Gitai, one of Israel's few internationally-acclaimed filmmakers, has paid for his vision. Officials of the Quality Film Encouragement Fund in Israel refused to support the provocative movie at every level of production, always for "artistic reasons," he says. They recanted and granted Gitai $50,000 to complete his film only when "Kadosh" became the first Israeli movie in 25 years to be included in the main competition at Cannes, Gitai says. "That was sweet," admits the 50-year-old filmmaker, who is no stranger to controversy.

After his first three documentaries were censored by Israeli television for criticizing the government and the military, Gitai, the son of a Bauhaus architect-turned-Nazi-refugee, moved to Paris for seven years and continued making movies that chronicled states of exile. He has been both celebrated and chastised for films like "House," a documentary about Arabs who fled Israel in 1948.

After Gitai moved back to Israel in 1993, he began a trilogy of feature films that captured the Israeli Zeitgeist by focusing on three cities: Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem is "all about religion," he decided to set his movie in one of the city's most famed Orthodox Jewish communities, Mea Shearim, he says. But while the story is critical of Orthodoxy, it is also reverent, Gitai insists. The director, after all, worked hard to accurately depict the beauty of Jewish ritual.

As research, he and his co-screenwriter, Elite Abecassis, an observant woman, spent a year hanging out in the shuls and schools of Mea Shearim. Gitai studied Jewish attitudes toward sex and childlessness on a CD-ROM edition of the Talmud. He filmed exterior shots of Mea Shearim in the early morning to avoid offending residents. A rabbi taught Jewish ritual to the actors, who studied Torah each evening during production.

Earlier this year, Gitai presided over a muddy shoot on the Golan Heights, where, under torrential rains, he recreated bloody battle scenes for his next film, an autobiographical account of his experience during the Yom Kippur War. Like all his movies, "Kippur" is likely to raise eyebrows. But Gitai doesn't mind. "Controversy is natural when you make movies that strike a nerve," he says. "And I don't like conformity of opinion, even regarding my films."

"Kadosh" opens March 17 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869, and Laemmle's Town Center 5 in Encino, (818) 981-9811.

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