Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem/Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz

According to current Israeli law, all Jewish couples, whether secular, semiobservant, or Orthodox, can seek divorce only in a religious court.  Their case is heard only by rabbis, behind closed doors; no observers allowed.  Unsurprisingly, these courts protect men’s interests; many women are held in bondage, some for decades, by husbands—and rabbis—who are unwilling to violate the sanctity of the Jewish home by permitting a divorce (gett).

In Gett, the brilliant Ronit Elkabetz plays a woman seeking a gett from the husband she despises. Gripping drama, searing social commentary, and brilliant mise-en-scene make Gett a groundbreaking film for Israeli cinema.  Far more importantly, Gett may prove groundbreaking for Israeli law: On the day the film opens in New York and L.A., it will also be screened for the judges of Israel’s rabbinical courts (some of whom have never seen a film, according to their interpretation of Jewish law) so that they may understand how the Israeli public views their work. It is hoped that this unprecedented screening, as well as the public discussion the film has fomented, will lead to a change in the law.

Gett is also the final film in a trilogy about a Jewish-Moroccan woman seeking freedom from the confines of her stifling home life.  Brother-sister codirectors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz based the first film of the trilogy—To Take a Wife—on their own mother’s struggles. As the trilogy moved on to Seven Days and then to Gett, it became less personal, more fictionalized, and more international.  In doing so, it transformed Jewish-Moroccan culture from a marginalized subset of Israeli society into a universally familiar experience.  Availability: Opens February 15 in New York at Lincoln Plaza and in L.A. at Royal Theatre. Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Gett is the final film in a trilogy. You’ve said that the first film—To Take a Wife—was inspired by your mother’s search for freedom. How does that relate to Gett?

 

RE:  Our personal background might be intriguing or curious, but Gett represents the situation in Israel as we saw it for every woman in Israel, and we were sensitive enough to it to make a movie about it. We come with the background of knowing a woman who wanted this freedom, fought for this freedom, and never managed to quite achieve it, but in terms of Gett, our mother never set foot in court.

SE:  Everything you need to know and understand about Gett is in the film. It’s very simple and basic. She wants to be free. She wants to live, and he says no. Then the question comes up, How come?  How come this woman wants to be free, and this system of law in this specific country does not entitle her to full rights to decide what she wants to do with her life?

We asked, What would happen if we took this couple, with their problems—which by now [as the final film in the trilogy] we know so well—and pour them into the Israeli legal system? How would the legal system cope with the will of this woman wanting to be free?  And we discovered, or we knew, that this system has nothing to offer her outside of the miserable experience we see in the film.

 

DT:  Like the couple in the film, you are Jewish-Moroccan. Was there anything specifically Jewish-Moroccan about Gett?

 

RE:  Every woman who comes to the court is equal, for better or for worse, and the same goes for the man. Their ethnic background has no bearing on their position in front of the rabbinical court.  We’re of Jewish-Moroccan background and heritage and ethnicity, so it was right for us to tell the story from that point of view, but it doesn’t have any bearing on the rabbinical proceedings.

SE:  Part of our work, of course, is to present this culture. Jews who come from Arab countries, the Jewish Arabs—

 

DT:  The Mizrahi Jews—

 

SE:  To put it more bluntly, these are Arab Jews. They are unrepresented in Israeli culture because the Arab culture is considered the enemy’s culture. Also, Israelis did not want to define Israeli culture as a Middle Eastern culture. Therefore those people were never represented in Israeli culture and Israeli art and Israeli literature, further on into politics and social life. Part of our work—part of our job—is to give these people faces, sound, voice, smell, color, to say, These are these people. We were actually the first ones to do it from a personal point of view, because we are those people. We are not Ashkenaz making this film…we are not white people doing a film about blacks.

 

DT: On other matters, you’ve both changed as filmmakers over the ten years that have passed between the first and the last film of the trilogy. How did that affect the characters in Gett?

 

RE:  The years go by, you grow, you learn, you develop, and time does its thing. When we came to Gett, we wanted to find a new language.  Every movie is a new beginning, a clean slate, and we were looking for a new cinematic syntax that is loyal and true to what we’re doing right here and now to the story we’re telling now. We didn’t want to use a beaten or corny cinematic language. We wanted to find something new, that’s relevant for this story. As I said earlier, the years go by, we grow, we learn, and our point of view in life changes, and that’s why our point of view in cinema changes as well.  We could not have made Gett ten years ago the same way we did it today. We also had to go with Viviane through her process and track her down physically and emotionally to the moment where she is in Gett.

 

SE: Also, there’s no form without a strong context. There has to be a context to the form we choose. The minute we showed To Take a Wife for the very first time, we understood how political we are.

RE:  We didn’t know that before.

SE:  We made a film that was very personal, but when we saw the reaction, we understood that we are very, very political people. What was really amazing to realize was that cinema can be so political without our making any effort or explaining anything. We just have to shoot what we see and what we believe and what we want to describe, and that by itself will be a very strong political statement.  Understanding that, we started to develop our forms of cinema and changing it into what you see in Gett.

 

DT:  Very interesting.  Let’s talk about Gett cinematographically.  You basically created a new geography, without using any master shots to establish locations.

 

RE:  Yes.

 

DT:  Can you talk about how you did that, why you did that, and how it affected the actors’ performance, because it was so striking.

 

RE:  This is the most interesting thing about the film.

SE:  We knew that we could start with the fact that the court is not objective. There’s no point in telling the story only from a director’s point of view. We had in mind the idea of a tennis court, where you turn your head from side to side as you watch, and we said, Let’s eliminate that shot—let’s take it out completely. Let’s shoot it only from the point of view of the actors, who see the ball coming at them at 200 kilometers per hour, and before it hits our lens, we’ll cut to the other place it’s flying to, and then we’ll cut to the other place it’s flying to. Let’s shoot a subjective film from different points of view, in order to emphasize this one true thing that we want to emphasize: this woman deserves to be free.  Let’s put the camera only where somebody sees something, and in this way we can actually reconstruct the whole space again and again for each scene.

We changed the points of view, but not only the points of view—the encounter between the different points of view re-creates the whole space and redefines emotion at that certain moment.  Because you have the people who speak to each other, and then you have the people who look.  So we shot two films—the talking-people film, and then the silent film. Who’s looking at whom, who’s reacting to whom; by that we also stretched the actors, because the actor divides his attention between the person he’s talking to and our camera, each time from another direction.  And he always reacts to two different places, and that’s how we stretch the space, stretch the actor, redefine the characters. We have the character of Viviane; she’s the lead character, but she doesn’t speak, she just sits.  How do you build a film on that?

RE:  For the actors, it was a very special process. They’d never worked like that. Me, too. Sometimes we had to wait days and days until we shot somebody because we were shooting the point of view of all the people in the room. Even though we didn’t shoot all the actors all the time, everybody had to be in character, dressed, saying their lines, as if the camera were on them, but without the camera being on them, for days and days, because we wanted a very true moment for the character in the center…we wanted the camera to be as honest as it could be. We didn’t compromise on this in any way. It was hard, because the people who didn’t have the camera on them didn’t have that adrenaline, or the excitement of the camera siting on you when you’re in the frame. We shot the rabbinical judges last, and even though this was a movie about the rabbinical court, they almost thought they weren’t in the movie.

SE: They kept asking, “Are we in the film?” because we waited for eight days before we shot them.

RE: It took the actors on an extraordinary journey.  It was an experience they never had, yet they got so sucked into this unique experience that at the end they thanked us for taking them on this unique journey.

 

DT:  It’s almost like you were doing a play, where everyone is essentially on stage all the time.

 

RE:  Yes, you’re right. We shot around 34 days and asked all the people to be there all this time.

SE:  Normally, people come for one or two days…

RE: …one week for everybody, and it’s finished. Less money, less time, less energy.  This time, we paid everybody to be there every minute.

 

DT:  It’s totally worth it. Gett will be shown to the rabbinical court administration in Israel on the very day that it’s opening here in L.A. and New York.  What do you hope will come out of the screening in Israel?

 

RE:  I want to be there, but nobody’s going to let us be there.

SE:  Somebody from our side is going to be there to make sure the print is clean and they’re going to see the film, but we are not allowed to be there.

RE:  I want to be.

SE:  But there will be consequences to that screening.  What can happen?  In utopia, the law will change.

RE:  Just to see the reaction in the theater, to hear what they’re thinking—

SE:  They’re probably going to talk through the whole film. Some of them are going to leave. It’s the first time they’re going to see their court from the point of view of a woman.  That’s crazy.  Imagine. In all of Jewish history it didn’t happen.

RE:  No one is going to like it.  But if some of them are intelligent, they’ll stay to the end, and maybe they will start to speak.

SE:  Today, everybody loves to be in the paper.  Everybody loves to be in the news.  Probably there will be someone….  I’ll tell you something.  We couldn’t go to visit a court, but we were invited to talk with one judge rabbi.  You know why?  Because the actor who plays our judge rabbi in the film used to be a children’s star on a show for religious people. The little son of one of the head rabbis was an admirer of his, so this judge rabbi talked to us.  Everybody wants to talk with someone famous today.  Everybody wants to be in the news. Maybe we’re going to benefit from that.  Maybe somebody is going to want to talk.

RE: After each screening—in Israel, and all over the world—when we have the Q&A, it’s a shout. Everybody wants to say something and ask something. It’s like a fight, very passionate, so I’m sure that there will not be agreement at that screening, and there will be no quiet there, either.  Even if all of them hate the movie, they will argue about that.

SE: The movie will go with them. One day they’re going to see the film, and the next day they’re going to see it in court.  A woman will ask for a divorce, and I’m sure the film is going to be there, pounding.  For many of them, it’s the first film they’re going to see.  It’s their first cinematic experience, and they’re going to see themselves.

 

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