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Internationally acclaimed Israeli-French filmmaker, Amos Gitai, discusses his art with Stanford community

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Israeli-born filmmaker Amos Gitai poses with students. Gitai visited Stanford to discuss his work as part of the 2014-2015 Aaron-Roland Endowed Lecture series.

This fall, Israeli-born filmmaker Amos Gitai met with members of the Stanford community as part of the 2014-2015 Aaron-Roland Endowed Lecture series. Faculty, students, and community members had the opportunity to view a number of Gitai’s more recent films and join Gitai to discuss his work.

Gitai’s visit marked the first of the five endowed lectures offered annually by Jewish Studies under the leadership of Professor Charlotte Fonrobert, who became director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies in September 2014. 

Widely admired on the international scene for his documentaries and feature films, Gitai has been credited with “reinventing cinema.” Gitai’s work explores various layers of history in the Middle East and beyond, including his own family history. He addresses themes like homeland, exile, religion, space, urban communities, social control, and utopia.

He has produced over forty films in a variety of languages including Hebrew, French, English, and Yiddish. Many of his films, such as Kippur, Kadosh, Yom Yom, Free Zone, and Ana Arabia, have won awards at various international film festivals. 

Stanford students and faculty from a diverse cultural background participated in discussions with the filmmaker in four different classrooms and in three languages, English, Hebrew, and French.
 
"Hosting Amos Gitai was a unique opportunity to expose the community to the artist's broad spectrum and mastery of his craft and the universality of the language of cinema," said Marie-Pierre Ulloa, Associate Director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and lecturer in French.

In Ulloa’s class on francophone literature and cinema, Gitai talked with students about his French film, One Day You’ll Understand (2008), an adaptation of the French writer Jérôme Clément's novel of the same name. The story is about a family secret and the Holocaust. Gitai told students “about his fascination with the complexity of the story, about the dynamics between writing for the page and for the screen, and about ultimately changing not the narrative but the distribution of the characters,” says Ulloa.

Remembering the Holocaust

Gitai also shared his most recent production, Tsili (2014), the first full-length Yiddish film produced in over 70 years, with Stanford’s small Yiddish-speaking community, comprised of students studying Jewish literature, history, and languages, as well as faculty who were raised in Yiddish-speaking households.

Professor Gabriella Safran, Chair of the Division of Literature, Cultures, and Languages, and whose Yiddish Folklore class participated in the screening of Tsili remarked, “It is a rare privilege for Yiddish students today to speak with a filmmaker who has just produced a film in Yiddish.”

“The fact that most of the actors had to learn Yiddish in order to create the film gives them much in common with us, for whom Yiddish is also a learned language,” Safran said. “I came away from the conversation with a sense of delight at being reminded that learning a language can be something we do not just to communicate but as a profoundly, if paradoxically, aesthetic act - and as a way to create something totally new.”

Tsili is a Yiddish adaptation of the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s Hebrew novel by the same name. The story is about a young Jewish woman named Tsili who was abandoned by her family when Hitler’s forces entered Eastern Europe. She takes to the forest, forages from the land, finds a companion, and ultimately survives the war making her way to Palestine.

“In my mind,” Gitai explained to his audience, “the Holocaust has been used too much as a political pion which is a vulgarization of memory. I wanted to find something that would not use the experience of the Holocaust beyond what it was.”

For Gitai, the story of Tsili is a way of remembering the Holocaust. “Cinema has different functions,” Gitai explained. “It can be pure entertainment, exploitation, consumption object, and an object of memory.”

“The living witnesses of the Holocaust are dying, the only thing that will remain are the arts,” Gitai said to students and faculty. “Since Yiddish is on the verge of being extinct, I want to preserve its memory.”

Translating through film

The main public event of Gitai’s visit was the screening of Gitai’s Ana Arabia (2013), for which Gitai received the Robert Bresson Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival. It is a stunning film consisting of a single, 81-minute shot in which the story of a family unfolds through a series of conversations with a visiting journalist.

Gitai’s co-writer, Marie-José Sanselme had first heard a story on the French news about a survivor of Auschwitz who was seventeen when she fell in love with an Arab worker and ended up in a village in the Galilee where she has five children and twenty-five grand-children.

“Initially, I was skeptical,” Gitai told the audience. “I thought another film on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unnecessary.” But his attitude changed, he explained, “When I saw the growing savagery of the Middle East… I said maybe we should speak about love and friendship, something that is so rare in this region.“

“I think we have to speak about this option of people loving one another despite the great conflict,” he adds. “A lot of my films, they are interested in the ways that big powers intersect the individuals’ will.”

Many of the audience members were struck by the unique framing of Ana Arabia.

“I decided to shoot the film in one shot because… I think the media portrays this conflict in a very dissected, fragmented manner,” Gitai responded to questions from the audience. “I translated what we say politically and thematically because I don’t wish to cut relations between Jews and Arabs,” Gitai explains. 

Unabashedly political in his productions, Gitai told the audience, “Artists must speak harshly about what needs to be criticized without making it softer than is necessary. This is our role.” 

Gitai believes that cinema has the power to create a new kind of dialogue about life. Many of Gitai’s films portray the quotidian, a strategic choice on his part. 

“I don’t believe the current state of politics in the Middle East can produce anything positive,” he said in response to a question. “I think the nationalist, ethnocentric missions… each group only counts for itself and doesn’t care about the other… is a very explosive situation.” To counter this, he says, “The only thing that can bring some kind of understanding is the day-to-day experience and meeting people. This is what I try to do in Ana Arabia.”

Marie-Pierre Ulloa and senior lecturer in Hebrew and Comparative Literature, Vered Shemtov, each sat down with Gitai to interview him about his work. Both interviews are available on the Youtube channel for Stanford Jewish Studies.

The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

Ashley Walters is a doctoral student in Jewish History at Stanford.