The Israel-Palestine conflict is a recurring theme in Israeli director Amos Gitai’s films, both dramas and documentaries. But rarely has he tackled this seemingly intractable issue as directly as he does in West of the Jordan River. Premiered in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, Gitai’s latest anguished love letter to his homeland examines hardening attitudes on both sides of the long-running turf war, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly pushing for new settlements and full military control over the occupied West Bank. Meanwhile, efforts to broker a two-state solution remain stalled.
Clearly weighted towards Gitai’s own liberal political stance, but incorporating a range of other views too, West of the Jordan River is a dry and sometimes depressing film, but informative and humane too. Gitai’s respected track record and the prickly, perpetually timely subject matter should guarantee plenty of festival play beyond Cannes, followed by a small-screen afterlife.
The film borrows its subtitle, Field Diary Revisited, and its format from Gitai’s 1982 documentary Field Diary, in which he toured the Israeli-occupied territories with a tiny film crew recording interviews with soldiers, politicians and civilians on all sides of the conflict. That film proved controversial enough for the director to flee the country, spending the next decade exiled in France.
Returning to address the same extremely thorny issue more than three decades later, Gitai mostly shoots in the current flashpoint of Hebron, the second largest urban center in the West Bank and the only Palestinian city with an Israeli settlement at its heart. He conducts formal interviews with journalists, politicians and activists. Most are Israeli liberals, but a couple of right-wing hardliners get into testy exchanges with the director, which only serve to illustrate the unyielding dogmatism that threatens every attempt at political compromise in the region.
More illuminating are the street-level chats that Gitai has with ordinary citizens, some angry, others conciliatory, about their grievances and hopes and suggested solutions for peace. The saddest of these interviewees is a Palestinian schoolboy of around 10 who cheerfully shares his dream of becoming a martyr in the holy war against Israel, which only underscores the depth of extremist indoctrination on both sides. After a failed bid to persuade the boy to choose life over death, a despondent Gitai just walks away.
There are more hopeful signs of progress in West of the Jordan River too, especially when Gitai meets charities and NGOs working against divisive propaganda narratives on either side. Breaking The Silence, a group of disillusioned Israeli military veterans, and the grassroots human rights collective B’Tselem are both dedicated to exposing the harsh reality of life under occupation. Less contentious and more moving is Gitai’s encounter with The Parents Circle, a joint Palestinian-Israeli support group for women who have lost loved ones in the conflict. “It’s easy to talk about peace and reconciliation as long as you can’t see your child’s killer,” says one bereaved mother.
Delicately woven with Amit Poznansky’s twinkly, doleful score, the film is fairly functional in style, but generally absorbing and admirably serious in intent. Gitai uses his archive 1994 interview with murdered peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin as a framing device, including a prophetic warning from the late Israeli prime minister about the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. But the documentary ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with scenes of Israelis and Palestinians bonding over backgammon at a culturally mixed carnival event. Inevitably, Gitai offers no new solutions for a political settlement, but he shows us how peaceful co-existence can work at a neighborhood level.
Production companies: Nilaya Productions, Agav Films, France Televisions
Director-screenwriter: Amos Gitai
Cinematographers: Oded Kirma, Eitan Hai, Vladimir Truchovski
Editors: Tai Zana, Vincent Schmitt, Yuval Orr
Music: Amit Poznansky
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Sales company: Doc & Films International