“My country, Israel, is full of contradictions and volcanic eruptions. We fluctuate between extremes. One morning you say peace is at hand and all problems will be resolved. The next day, it’s the apocalypse.”
The thumbnail description comes from Amos Gitai, who, more than any other Israeli filmmaker, has explored the emotional peaks and valleys of his people in more than 40 feature films and documentaries.
A retrospective of seven films, illustrating different stages in Gitai’s 30-year career, will start March 15 at the Skirball Cultural Center, continuing March 16 at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre and March 17 on the USC campus.
The organizer and sponsor of the three screenings is the Institut Français, an agency supported by the French government to promote French culture abroad and international cultural exchange.
At first sight, it seems odd that the Gitai fest, supplemented by a richly illustrated booklet in French, English and Spanish, falls under the French aegis, rather than under Israeli or local Jewish auspices.
By way of explanation, French diplomat Mathieu Fournet noted that Gitai spends much of his working life in Paris, and many of his films have been made in France, where he is fervently admired as an international auteur of the first rank.
Fournet heads the Los Angeles Film and Television Department of the French Embassy and is the chief organizer of the Gitai tribute.
If the French and other Europeans love Gitai the cinema artist, Israelis are conflicted, to put it politely, about Gitai, the disturber of the peace.
Though Gitai, now 60, is a Haifa-born sabra whose helicopter was shot down during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and he barely escaped death, his films upset many of his countrymen.
His first film, the made-for-television documentary “House,” was banned by TV executives for showing, in Gitai’s view, “that Palestinians have the same attachment to the land as Israelis.”
Though all his subsequent movies have been shown in Israeli theaters, they have generally been controversial.
For instance, the autobiographical movie “Kippur,” which portrayed the confusion and brutalities of the 1973 war with unrelenting graphic images, received a mixed reception.
Gitai likes to group his movies into trilogies, examining the same topic from three different perspectives. In his “city trilogy” of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the capital city is represented by “Kadosh” (Holy), set in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter.
Orthodox Jews bitterly attacked the film as presenting a twisted picture of their way of life.
In Europe, Gitai is admired not only for the content of his films, but equally for his cinematic virtuosity and diversity.
“Gitai is now one of the most respected filmmakers in the international arena, who continually explores new narrative methods and styles,” wrote French film historian Jean-Michel Frodon.
Such homages have earned Gitai awards at prestigious film festivals at Cannes and Venice, as well as retrospectives of his works in London, Paris, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Tokyo and New York.
By contrast, not once has the Israeli Film and Television Academy, which annually selects the country’s top film to compete for Oscar honors, chosen a Gitai work.
Gitai gave a short laugh when an interviewer asked him if he considered himself, as a filmmaker if not prophet, “not without honor save in his own country.”
“I don’t think this [lack of recognition] is strictly a political matter,” he answered. “Israel has a small film industry, which is very competitive. Maybe there are too many Jews concentrated in a small territory.
“But it is kind of bizarre,” he added, “and there is such a thing as jealousy.”
Gitai is an artistic multitasker, working simultaneously or separately as film director, producer, actor and scriptwriter, as well as author and director of stage plays.
His father, the noted Bauhaus architect Munio Weinraub, was imprisoned and then expelled from Germany by the newly empowered Nazi regime in 1933. He moved to Palestine in 1935 and married native-born Efratia Margalit, a Zionist activist.
Initially, Gitai, born in 1950, followed in his father’s footsteps, earning architecture degrees from the Technion and a doctorate at UC Berkeley. His son, Benjamin, a veteran of the second Lebanon War, is now studying to become an architect himself.
After decades of focusing on his countrymen’s lives and travails, Gitai is now turning his attention to the Diaspora, first examined in his 2008 film, “One Day You Will Understand.”
He is currently working on a movie, “Lullaby to My Father,” exploring the lost European world of his paternal forebears.
“As you get older, you think more about your roots,” Gitai said.
The Los Angeles Gitai retrospective will present the following films:
“Kippur”: Gitai’s experiences during the 1973 war.
“Alila”: The intersecting lives of residents in a run-down Tel Aviv apartment building.
“Kadosh”: Two ultra-Orthodox women question their lifestyles.
“Esther”: The Purim story set in a modern Middle East context.
“Free Zone”: An American woman (Natalie Portman) gets involved in a Jordanian-Israeli money scheme.
“Disengagement”: A Frenchwoman (Juliette Binoche) and her Israeli half-brother are caught up in the Gaza removal of settlers.
“News From Home/News from House”: Last in a trilogy centering on a house in Jerusalem and its Arab and Jewish owners.
Venues, films and dates
Skirball Cultural Center:
“Kippur” on March 15, 8 p.m., features Q&A With Gitai;
“Alila” on March 30, 8 p.m.;
“Kadosh” on April 10, 2 p.m.;
“Esther” on April 21, 8 p.m.;
For advance tickets, phone (877) 722-4849, or visit http://www.skirball.org
American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre:
“Free Zone” and “Disengagement,” March 16 double feature starting at 7:30 p.m. Q&A with Gitai between films, moderated by The Journal’s Tom Tugend; for tickets, visit http://www.fandango.com/egyptiantheatre_aaofx/theaterpage"www.fandango.com/egyptiantheatre_aaofx/theaterpage.
Ray Stark Family Theatre, George Lucas Bldg., USC campus:
March 17; “News From Home/News from House” at 5:30 p.m.; “Disengagement” at 7:30 p.m., followed by Q&A with Gitai, moderated by USC Associate Dean Michael Renov; Admission is free but reservations required through http://cinema.usc.edu/AmosGitai"http://cinema.usc.edu/AmosGitai.