A meditative, non-narrative tale of a young woman hiding in the forest of Czernovitz, Bukovina during the final months of World War II, Amos Gitai’s Tsili is based on the deeply disturbing novel Tzili The Story of a Life by survivor Aharon Appelfeld. Gitai reinterprets the novel’s disaffected tone by splitting the character of Tsili among three actresses; he captures the novel’s neo-naif mood in Tsili’s animal-like existence as she scrabbles for roots and berries. Appelfeld once said to Gitai, “The reality of the Holocaust surpassed any imagination. If I remained true to the facts, no one would believe me.” Gitai’s film conjures such a primal feeling of horror that it is impossible not to believe. •Availability: New York Jewish Film Festival. Click here for a schedule. •Thanks to David Ninh, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Anne Scher, The Jewish Museum, for arranging this interview.•
DT: In addition to directing Tsili, you also cowrote the screenplay with Marie-Jose Sanselme. How would you describe the relationship between a film and the novel upon which it’s based?
AG: It’s a Talmudic exercise of interpretation. It’s not about illustrating. You have a text, which is a book, and then you write a script. Then this text has again to be reinterpreted and put into form. That’s the beauty of this kind of cinema, not just mine, which is really about interpretation. It’s not about execution. Most of cinema today is about execution because the producers want to know everything as precisely as possible in advance so they can make financial assessments and already estimate the income and so on. I think this harms the procedure of interpretation, because while you know some things in advance, some of the deeper understanding comes along while you do the work. It’s not really about improvisation, but you go layer by layer in a more profound way in order to understand the work while you do it.
DT: Appelfeld wrote Tzili The Story of a Life in Hebrew, but you insisted on using Yiddish, even though that made it much more difficult for you to find actresses, since so few people speak Yiddish today. Why did you insist on Yiddish?
AG: Because the original language of the Jews in the area of Czernovitz, Bukovina was Yiddish. So even if Appelfeld wrote the novel in Hebrew, the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew at the time.
DT: For me, the tragedy of Tsili came at the end, with the footage of the children. That signified looking forward, to how the Holocaust would affect things to come, as opposed to most other films, which look back at what the Holocaust destroyed. Was that your intention?
AG: Yes; that’s a fair assessment of what I was doing.
DT: How closely did you work with Appelfeld?
AG: I was very interested in understanding his point of view, but the work of filming is a lonely job.
DT: You established a museum in Haifa to honor your father’s architectural achievements, and you yourself studied architecture before the Yom Kippur War. Is there a relationship between your filmmaking and architecture?
AG: Definitely. When you study architecture, you learn a lot about form, and the meaning of form, and the way you can use form, both to improve housing but also as a symbolic gesture. Normally, I start by looking at sites before I even start casting actors. I want to understand where I’ll be filming. I also like to know my sites quite a long time in advance to optimize them and see how I can move figures in these kinds of landscapes, both interior and exterior.
DT: One of the things I find most potent about your filmography is that it captures the Jewish experience around the world—including the Jewish experience from the Arab point of view, as in Ana Arabia—but I don’t think of you as a Jewish filmmaker the way I think of Godard as a French filmmaker or Fellini as an Italian filmmaker. Do you think of yourself as a Jewish filmmaker?
AG: I don’t know what a Jewish filmmaker is, so I don’t know if I can answer you. Jews have different interpretations of themselves, which is very often a subject of internal conflicts, because everybody interprets the meaning of being Jewish in a different way. You don’t have a Vatican, you don’t have a pope, you don’t have a central authority; it’s a very decentralized, kind of anarchic, structure. That’s one of the things I like. You can figure out yourself the meaning of being a Jew. Some people take it to very nationalistic directions. Some people take it to very strict Orthodoxy, some people take it to more religious instruction and restrictions, like keeping kosher and following Shabbat. Some people take it more conceptually, so I think before I can answer your question, we have to discuss the meaning of being a Jew.
DT: I don’t think we can do that in fifteen minutes. Tsili, like your films Ana Arabia and Kedma, is deeply meditative. Do you see those films as distinct from some of your other films like Disengagment, or Kippur, or Kadosh?
AG: They are different, both in form and narrative; they’re more a juxtaposition of situations than continuous narrative. It’s a very minimalist phase, and I like it a lot. You’re carried by the film’s state of mind rather than by explicit words or narratives.
DT: Is it a different way of working for you as a director?
AG: It’s more a different construction. The way I work with actors is not so different, although it’s not the same either. It’s not following prescribed indication. When I give Sara Adler some indications in a film like Tsili, I feel completely free to tell her how she should relate to the landscape, to nature. It was the same when I asked Meshi to do this dance in the beginning.
DT: I’ve been following your films ever since House and Field Diary because I think they’ll make a difference in the political situation in Israel. Do you think so too, and is that what you’re hoping for with your cinema?
AG: I think that we artists don’t have as much power as we think we have. We don’t have any real power—we have only some symbolic power—but we have to start somewhere. At the same time, I don’t think that ideas are so weak. I think that the planet is moved not only by greed and brutality and weapons but also ideas; religion and Marxism, like many other ideas, have moved the planet quite a lot. I believe in ideas, and I think that we have to inject ideas into reality and hope that doing so will have some impact. It doesn’t have, and it shouldn’t have, a kind of immediate “OK, I got out of the movie. Let’s make a revolution”—I think that would be oversimplified—but if you increase the level of understanding, I think that’s pretty good.
In some way it’s also associated with your previous question about architecture. We are very much bombarded these days by architectural spectacle. Famous architects make this very vain architecture, which is just a formal gesture. I think we have a similar problem in cinema, so we have to try to reinject meaning into form. Architecture and cinema are similar; when you have only form, it’s empty of meaning. When you have only ideological indoctrination without form, it also defies its meaning, so we have to try to have a dialogue between form and narrative and try to reinvent it.
I really like something Jeanne Moreau once told me. She said that when she decides to do a new project, it’s because she can learn something she doesn’t know already. I see a lot of actors who basically want to give you the number you’ve already seen. I’m not interested in that. When I decide to make a film, it’s because I want the film to teach me something. That’s a fascinating road. It’s stimulating. When I will learn nothing more, I will stop making films.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015