Death of a Statesman: Amos Gitai debuts chronicle of ‘Rabin, The Last Day’

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When Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992, director Amos Gitai ended ten years of self-imposed exile to return to Israel. Three years later, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist. Rabin, The Last DayGitai’s exploration into the assassination—is more than just a film. It is a cry of rage and despair at the past and a wakeup call for the present. The Kino Lorber release opens on Jan. 29 in New York City, with a national rollout to follow. Judy Gelman Myers of the website Director Talk recently spoke to Gitai about his new feature.

Director Talk: This is an extremely personal film for you. You not only returned to Israel when Rabin was elected, but you also worked with Rabin to make Give Peace a ChanceCan you talk about your personal impressions of Rabin and how they influenced Rabin, The Last Day?

Amos GitaiBeyond being a statesman, Rabin was a model of Israel that I like. He spoke simply, without all this diplomatic language we’re so used to. He was not a guy who read opinion polls in the morning to decide what he would broadcast in the afternoon. He had a certain concept of what he thought would reconcile Israel with this very difficult region. And he was determined. So he was touching. He would speak his opinion. Sometimes people would like it, sometimes not, but there was a level of integrity and simplicity, which is unfortunately not what we see now. Now it is replaced with cynicism, with a belief in media spin, so the guy in power [Benjamin Netanyahu] can say that the Holocaust was cooked in Jerusalem by the Mufti and Hitler is just a soft nice guy who copyrighted the idea, etc., etc.—endless nonsense that is being circulated on the Internet. This is in such great opposition to Rabin.

DT: Rabin, The Last Day is based entirely on existing documentation. Did you find that much material was censored, especially in relation to Avishai Raviv [a Shin Bet agent charged with failing to prevent Rabin’s assassination]? And where did you find material about the settler “psychologist” who declared that Rabin was schizoid and wasn’t fit to lead the nation?

AG: This psychologist is still around, and what she says in the film is what she said in an interview. Everything you see in the film is factual. We didn’t invent; when they say that Rabin and Peres belong to a satanic sect and should be judged like the Vichy government, like Petain, it was all really said. As far as Avishai Raviv, we got access to what is public. Not everything is public, because the secret service doesn’t want to reveal all the documents, but we put in what we could put in.

DT: Did you have special access?

AG: I asked Meir Shamgar, who was the Supreme Court judge and head of the Shamgar Commission, to give us access to the state archives in Jerusalem. He did, so we could use it as a source for the screenplay.

DT: Let’s talk about the Shamgar Commission. Many scenes in your film reenact the commission’s proceedings. How did you go about filming the reenactment?

AG: We had all the protocols of the commission, so we were aware of the ongoing investigation—for instance, the driver who revealed that he forgot to put the blue light on top of the car [to keep the road to the hospital clear after Rabin was shot] and that he was not informed of the shortest way to the hospital in case of an emergency; the fact that because nobody called the hospital to tell them Rabin was arriving they had to find a stretcher on the spot, so time was wasted; the fact that some of the secret service agents were not prepared and rehearsed sufficiently for the events. All of that was in the protocols that we found, and we basically did a reenactment almost as is.

DT: Were you shocked by anything that you read?

AG: I was shocked by the level of violence against Rabin, by the incitement of hallucinating rabbis and the medieval spells that they used [din rodef, or the right of self-defense, invoked against Rabin for ceding part of the land of Israel to non-Jews, or pulsa de nura, a Kabbalistic death curse], by the strong settlers’ lobby, and by the parliamentary right who were so thirsty for power that they performed a kind of coup d’etat.

DT: The opening helicopter sequence was terrifying, but the archival footage of Netanyahu standing on a balcony, presiding over a rally where they’re screaming “Death to Rabin,” was the most terrifying, especially with its implications for the present. How do you compare the current climate in Israel with the climate that led to Rabin’s assassination, and what connection do you see between the two?

AG: The connection is simple: Some of the people who incited against Rabin are in power today.

DT: That’s pretty straightforward.

AG: What more can we say?

DT: Your training as an architect is very much in evidence in the film, not only in the look of the sets but also in the structure of the film, which is almost “built” from different elements. Can you separate your architectural training from your filmic approach, or is it one and the same?

AG:I was supposed to follow in the footsteps of my father, who was a Bauhaus architect and a student of Kandinsky and Mies van der Rohe. Because of circumstances in Israel, I was sent to the Kippur War, but when I came back, I felt that architecture was a bit formal as an exercise, and I wanted to make films.

I spent nine years of my life studying architecture, first at the Technion in Haifa, and then for a PhD in architecture in Berkeley. I said to my professors in Berkeley—they didn’t always take it as a compliment—that architecture is a great general education because an architect has to deal with real parameters: budgets, economic restrictions, bureaucrats at city hall who will try to modify your ideas. Sometimes the people who order the project, much like a film producer, will try to interfere and impose their taste, so you have not only the aesthetic parameters but also a lot of similar survival strategies.

DT: And what about the aesthetic parameters?

AG: Both mediums start with a text. A filmmaker starts with a screenplay, while an architect gets a program that says: You have to build a school with twenty classrooms, meeting rooms for teachers, and a cafeteria, etc., etc. Neither has a shape, so both involve the intellectual process of translating text into form. I decided to make a film about the assassination of Rabin—that was the theme—but what form would it take? Would I shoot it the way I always like, in sequence shots, or would I shoot it in a different way? How would I light it, where would I put the camera, how would I frame it, and so on? There were a lot of different formal issues.

DT: I reacted quite similarly to your film Kedma and to Rabin, The Last Dayespecially the final shots. Although the two films are completely different in subject matter, I feel like there’s this feeling of despair, rather than the hope of the pioneers, that’s really at the heart of the State of Israel.

AG: Yes. I would say we—I mean collectively—are anxious people. According to history, we have good reasons to be worried, to be concerned, to not be happy, to investigate on our own how things will evolve. There is a big group of people in Israel, unfortunately not in power, who are very concerned. We’re not very happy when we see a continuous erosion in the democratic structure of the state and more and more racist voices. The Minister of Education wants to ban a book [Borderlife, about a romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian]; the Ministry of Culture wants us all to sing only Oriental music, etc. etc., so I think there are good reasons for concern.

DT: What effect has Rabin’s assassination had on Israel?

AG: It’s a major event. To put it simply, it’s not always the good guys who win. We’re in this phase, and it’s lasting twenty years. The current guy [Benjamin Netanyahu] has certain abilities to send one group against another—the Jews against the Arabs, the Sephardim against Ashkenazim, the ultra-Orthodox against the others—in order to stay in power, and it works. He’s been re-elected. At the same time, he may destroy some of the fabric of Israeli society. Especially in a society of immigrants, it’s very important to keep common sense and not send one group against another, but he’s so much into power that he probably considers this is secondary to remaining in power, secondary to spending millions of shekels to build himself a new palace or get himself a new, beautiful jet. Because why not? If the American president has one, why shouldn’t he? He forgets the different scale of the countries. Even in this sense he’s different from what preceded him. It’s not even a question of right or left. Rabin lived in an apartment of about a hundred and twenty square meters. Both Shamir and Begin were quite modest on an individual level, so this is a new type of pseudo-democratic monarchy. We just had the news two days ago that he was re-elected unanimously as the only [Likud] candidate for the next election. If he wins the next general election, we’re living with him till 2023.

DT: Rabin, The Last Day premiered in Israel on the twentieth anniversary of the assassination. How was it received?

AG: Some people liked it and some didn’t. It’s not supposed to be a consensual, sticky piece of kitsch legacy of Rabin. It’s supposed to bring up discussion, reflection. In this sense, I would say it’s legitimate to have all types of opinions. In many cases, I touched an exposed nerve of Israeli society, so it’s completely normal that people would have different opinions. I don’t think it’s illegitimate.

DT: Do you think that people understand the real Netanyahu?

AG: I wish they’d understand faster.

DT: How about American Jews?

AG: I don’t want to generalize. I think that the problem is not so much Jews, as you say; it’s more that the establishment feels, probably because of guilt feelings from the Second World War, that they have to automatically support everything Israel does. I think that for people who really love Israel—and I hope that people will love Israel, because there are many aspects to be loved—they have to voice their opinion when they disagree. They don’t do it. The establishment automatically supports every move, and I think it’s counterproductive.

DT: In terms of Rabin’s assassination, do you believe there was a conspiracy within the government to betray him?

AG: I didn’t see proof of conspiracy in the way that you say it. It was out in the open. There were major demonstrations to destabilize the government, so it was written on the wall. I’m not even sure they needed a conspiracy. If there was one, I’m not aware of it, but I left all the components in the film so you can make up your mind. The conspiracy theories are largely carried by the Israeli extreme right because they want us to believe that they are innocent, that the conspiracy was on the part of the secret service, that the extreme right did nothing bad. Always pure.

DT: What do you want people to take away from the film?

AG: Memory is an active agent. As Jews, if we didn’t think this way, we would not be around, because there were many reasons not to be around... destruction, assimilation. Memory is an agent that’s also active in forming the future. Sometimes when the present is blocked, you have to look to the past to have an idea for the future, so I’m trying to show an element from twenty years ago.

I especially like a particular piece of footage in the film, when Rabin speaks about Gaza. I shot it myself when I went with Rabin to Washington and Cairo. It really reveals the difference between him and what followed. Rabin said that if Israel were to withdraw from Gaza unilaterally, the worst forces would take over: Let’s not forget that he said it exactly ten years before Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza. We know what happened then.

Rabin said that if Israel withdrew, 24,000 Palestinians salaries would need to be paid. That we had to make sure the Palestinians had water and electricity; he even said there had to be oxygen in the hospitals. For me, this is the big difference: If you want to make peace, you cannot do it unilaterally. It’s like any human relationship. It’s like love. It doesn’t exist unilaterally. The other should exist. And Rabin understood it. He said: If it’s a real peace, you have to take the other into consideration. Right now, not just Israel, the entire Middle East is in a terrible phase where the other doesn’t exist. It’s completely about ethnocentrism—it’s only us, our history, our gods. I’m not talking about Israel, I’m talking about everybody. The consequences: no rights for women, minorities should be eliminated. This is the general spirit of the Middle East, which is a very problematic thing. When Rabin speaks about Gaza, you can’t believe that a head of state had this perception twenty years ago. I think it’s good to remember it.

The author thanks Aimee Morris at Sophie Gluck PR for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk: Copyright © Director Talk 2016.