Unconventional Israeli filmmaker to show works, share thoughts at Stanford

Kippur DVD

With a 40-year career creating short films, politically charged documentaries and character-driven narrative features, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai is widely respected among the cognoscenti of film festival programmers and museum curators.

However, Gitai is essentially unknown to most American moviegoers. Only a few of his features - "Kadosh" (1999), "Kippur" (2000) and "Free Zone" (2005) - have received wide theatrical distribution, and they are contemplative and ambiguous works that employ long takes and eschew cathartic climaxes.

While rewarding and often profound viewing experiences, Gitai's films aren't exactly multiplex fodder.

"Cinema is becoming a much more tight format, managed as a consumer object," says Gitai, speaking on the phone from Paris. "My kind of cinema, and also the filmmakers that I appreciate, they would rather initiate a dialogue with a public."

That's precisely what's on tap when Gitai presents his 2013 experimental narrative, "Ana Arabia," under the auspices of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University on Oct. 29. The event is the Aaron-Roland endowed lecture, although Gitai won't be delivering a prepared talk but rather engaging in a post-screening discussion.

"Ana Arabia," which premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, unfolds in a small town on the Jaffa-Bat Yam border where Jews and Arabs live side by side. Shot in a single uninterrupted take, the film follows a young Israeli reporter interviewing the inhabitants about the recently deceased title character, a Holocaust survivor who moved to pre-state Israel, married an Arab and converted to Islam.

"Ana Arabia," like other films in Gitai's oeuvre, seeks to demystify and erase the perceived differences between Jew and Arab that allow the notion of "the other" to persist.

"We have to keep speaking," Gitai says calmly. "It's necessary. It's important not to allow just one voice to exist, so we have to keep talking about coexistence even if it's out of fashion."

Gitai's films fit comfortably in the European mode of open-ended character studies that are more interested in cinematic form than storytelling. That said, Gitai's nontraditional narrative in "Ana Arabia" allows for the exploration of historical and contemporary themes.

"As an ex-architect, I'm interested in bridges and not interested just in spectacular explosions of bridges," Gitai says. "We have to try to reach out, and if Israelis want to keep existing in this region we have to find a solution, whatever it is. But we cannot just say, ‘Fine, let us cherish the status quo.' We have to keep speaking loud and to keep this idea as a real option."

Gitai will also screen "Tsili," his Yiddish-language adaptation of Aharon Appelfeld's 1982 novel about a young woman struggling to survive World War II. It premiered last month at the prestigious Venice festival.

"I told Appelfeld from the beginning that I'm not the kind of filmmaker who will illustrate his text, because great texts don't need illustration," Gitai confides. "Our minds can address what we read; we don't need cinema. So the only reason to make a film relating to a literary text is if the film is an interpretation, or a dialogue [between] two disciplines or two media which are autonomous. He accepted it."

The "Tsili" screening is a private event, but the film will presumably screen again in the Bay Area in the coming year - the vagaries of film distribution permitting, that is.

"I don't think the problem is the individual human being," Gitai says. "I think the problem is the massive control of distribution systems. Control not in any kind of conspiracy theory, but control as basically brainwashing with shallow objects. I think people are thirsty to see something else when they get the chance."

Amos Gitai appears in conversation following the screening of "Ana Arabia" at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29 at Cubberley Auditorium on the Stanford campus. http://www.tinyurl.com/amos-gitai