Free Zone: Interview with Director Amos Gitai

Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai is a regular in the Festival de Cannes, the most prestigious film event in the world. At least four of his movies have received their world premieres here, including some of his best and most controversial films, such as Kadosh and Kippur. Other Gitai Pictures have also traveled the global festival road, such as Venice.

Filmmaking is a second career for Gitai, who was born in Haifa, a city with a large Palestinian population. At first, Gitai followed in the footsteps of his father, studying architecture in the Technion.

Since the early 1980s, he’s been based in Paris, “a city which is very open and hospitable to all kinds of cinemas.” Gitai’s films are mostly financed by French and other European companies. Gitai’s existence depends on festivals like Cannes and Venice; he has always been more appreciated by European than Israeli audiences.

His new film, Free Zone, starring Natalie Portman (who’s in the new Star Wars trilogy), was greeted in Cannes with mixed response. Some critics considered it a return to form and Gitai’s most emotionally satisfying film since Kippur, while others dimissed it as a pretentious feminist message film.

One thing is for sure: Gitai’s work is unabashedly political, tackling controversial, often taboo, issues that provoke thoughtful discussion. As such, they are often more interesting intellectually than artistically.

To begin a film in Jerusalem, in front of the Wailing Wall, the remnant of the scared shrine of the ancient temple destroyed by the Romans, is a bold decision replete with historical and religious meanings. And indeed, the picture’s first reel is both suspenseful and disorienting, since the viewers don’t know yet who the two women are, or where they are going.

If that scene sounds a bit schematic and symbolic, it is. The whole movie could be interpreted as an allegory about crossing borders, both physical and mental. Stylistically, “Free Zone” is innovative, too. To show the women’s subjective memories, and the contexts in which they live, Gitai uses layers of images, sometimes eight layers simultaneously, instead of the more conventional use of flashbacks. The point is clearly made: The women’s past is integral to the way they perceive the present.

Gitai says he was interested in “exploring how to integrate the narrative fragments of dysfunctional memories.” While Rebecca and Hanna drive to the Free Zone, their voyage is continuously interrupted and charged with memories and references to how they came to be in “this moving envelope called a car.”

The three women represent national types that embodying different political and personal values. Hanna, the Israeli woman, is strong, charismatic, matter of fact, a bit of a bully, but also charming. Gitai holds that these are “characteristics of Israelis in general, who are overbearing, but sincere. Not always respectful, but refreshing in a way.”

It also sums up, as he says, “Everything that I like and resent about Israelis.” To his credit, Gitai doesn’t exclude himself from that description. Clearly, “Free Zone” is a personal work. “The film is also a portrait of myself,” Gitai says. “I’m not different from my people.”

In the film, Hanna travels to the Jordan’s Free Zone to collect some money owed to her husband Moshe, who is wounded and stranded in Jerusalem, unable to execute the business transaction. This situation puts Hanna face to face with Leila (Hiam Abbas), a Palestinian. Kinder to Leila than to Hanna, Gitai portrays her as a more reserved, elegant, and respectful woman, who’s at first shocked by Hanna’s informal and confrontational manner. Gitai allows that he’s “always more critical with my people than with others.”

The film’s most interesting and conflicted persona is Rebecca, a young woman trying to interpret the world for herself, to make up her identity. She’s an American with an Israeli father and a non-Jewish mother, which, according to Jewish law, makes her non-Jewish. But Rebecca feels Jewish, even Israeli; actress Portman is given a few lines of dialogue in Hebrew.

Most of the tale is set in Eastern Jordan, an area designated as an economic free zone. It’s kind of a no man’s land, since there are no customs and no taxes. People from neighboring countries, like Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Israel come here to sell and buy cars. Gitai says he’s interested “in these pockets of freedom in the Middle East, where people of different origins can mingle and find things they can do in common.” He wants to show “how people of the region are connecting to other people through everyday activities, not only through political gestures.”

Known for his critical stand toward Israel’s official policies, Gitai claims that people have been “deceived continuously by the big politicians.” Taking a more pragmatic approach, he holds that “Perhaps it’s necessary to start with the little details, and maybe through these details we can transform our situation.”

One might ask what exactly are these little details, for which Gitai has an answer: “Buying a car, fixing it, crossing the border, sharing a story, a meal together. Im interested in free zones where things like this can happen.” As bleak as the film is in its overall political view, it also points to the direction of female empowerment and even camaraderie. At one point, the three women, whose personalities couldn’t have been more divergent, find themselves sitting together in Hanna’s car, singing the same melody that’s played on the radio.

Gitai says he was amazed to discover a situation of complete peace in the Free Zone. “You can even see Israeli buses being sold to Saudis or Syrians,” he observes. “And these are countries that normally don’t even have diplomatic relations since they are officially in a state of war.” In the Free Zone, commerce gives people a more pragmatic attitude. Gitai hopes that “a less-charged nationalist attitude could lead to moving beyond the actual situation.” Disenchanted with governmental politics, Gitai says: “Im interested in exploring every sector that can create a meeting point. Trade is creating a common ground. People are opening their borders to cooperate on common projects with economic value.”

The film’s first half is set on the road, as the women drive from Jerusalem to Jordan, passing one roadblock after another. Says Gitai: “In the Middle East, borders are a real issue. It’s always physical borders, political borders, but they lead to mental borders. My main interest is in bordershow they are crossed, what crosses them.” Gitai’s previous film, “Promised Land,” was about the trafficking of women across the Egyptian border into Israel. In contrast, “Free Zone” is about the voluntary transfer of a car across the Israeli-Jordanian border.

It’s rare to see a political film about women made in Israel. Has Gitai become a feminist filmmaker Recalling the saga’s origins, he says: “The screenplay went through a lot of transformations. The original version was about men, but later, I decided to make it the story of three women.” For Gitai, while men conduct politics and run the military conflict, women are the real heroines, since “they are the wives, the mothers, the daughters, and the sisters of the victims. ” While conceiving the film, he thought it would be more interesting “to see how women survive this conflict.” “Free Zone” reflects his philosophy that “women try to be more practical, they try to get along.”