House Calls

Steven Erickson on the films of Amos Gitai

Amos Gitai, News from Home/News from House, 2006, still from a color film in 35 mm, 97 minutes. Mohamad Said el Arj.

IN THE US, Israeli director Amos Gitai is best known for the narrative films he has made over the past decade, particularly Kadosh (1999) and Kippur (2000). However, he began his career as a documentarian and director of experimental shorts, and his strongest fiction films maintain a direct connection to reality. Perhaps his best narrative film, Esther (1986), is notable for a coda in which the actors break character to speak directly about their own experiences.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art is screening most of Gitai’s documentaries in a series titled “Amos Gitai: Non-Fiction,” including a weeklong run of his latest, News from Home/News from House (2006). The “house” trilogy is his rough equivalent of Michael Apted’s “Up” series, except that it uses a home in West Jerusalem to chart the tensions inherent in Israel’s fragile status quo. A mere fifty minutes, The House (1980) sets the tone. Despite a reliance on talking-head interviews, Gitai seems fascinated by images of manual labor and architecture, a trade in which he earned a Ph.D. The film’s politics emerge naturally out of Gitai’s conversations with Arab workers, who speak frankly about their anger at Israeli Jews in general and Israeli homeowners in particular. It also possesses the first instance of a Gitai trademark: a tracking shot taken from a car window.

A House in Jerusalem (1998) focuses in its opening and closing reels on the Dajani family, one of the house’s original owners. The film, the most reliant on interviews of the trilogy, is notable for the intelligent and reasonable responses Gitai receives after asking extremely contentious questions about the dual claims of Jews and Arabs to the land of Israel. News from Home is Gitai’s slickest-looking documentary to date, thanks to handsome high-definition videography, and brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. In many ways, it sums up the project’s strengths, in particular Gitai’s ability to speak about politics in a way that honors individual experience more than the cant of official spokespeople.

The MoMA retrospective leads in to the release of Gitai’s latest narrative film, One Day You’ll Understand (2008). Set in France in 1987, it chronicles the growing fascination of Victor Bastien (Hippolyte Girardot) with his Jewish roots and his family’s experiences during World War II. Despite a strong performance by Jeanne Moreau as Victor’s mother, the film's camera movements have more presence than its characters. Gitai places himself in a tradition stretching from F. W. Murnau to Béla Tarr, using the camera to probe space in long takes. Many times, it crosses through a wall and suddenly leaves the actors off-screen. Even during close-ups, Gitai constantly reframes the image, and the film’s final shot tracks back from a view of the Eiffel Tower through a hallway. All this motion seems disconnected from the narrative. The discoveries Victor makes about the Holocaust are news to him, but they won’t startle any reasonably well-informed viewer. Girardot’s performance is too bland to really convey his character’s obsessive nature. Despite Gitai’s considerable skill, One Day You’ll Understand’s captivating style can’t hide the bluntness and overly familiar nature of its story. Watching it back to back with News from Home/News from House suggests that at this point, Gitai is a better documentarian than narrative filmmaker.

“Amos Gitai: Non-Fiction” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from October 24 to November 2. For more information, click here.