NEW YORK >> Amos Gitai is an Israeli film director who has produced an immense and intellectually intricate body of work, little of it seen in commercial theaters. He has never made it easy for his audiences, often combining fact and fiction in feature films that have a collage-like quality, eschewing emotional catharsis and stirring imagery for a more detached analytic perspective.
His films dealing with Israeli history and society ("Kippur," "Kedma") have always offered a complex, layered and critical vision of its political reality, though at the same time they express a profound commitment to Israel. Gitai has stated, "I like to use the medium to pose questions, to deal with this very irritated place called Israel."
After a number of his documentaries in the 1980s, which were anti-militaristic and represented Palestinians sympathetically, were rejected by Israeli TV, he became unpopular in some circles. He left Israel in an act of self-imposed exile to settle in Paris for 10 years, returning in 1994, inspired by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's peace-making efforts. He still divides his time between homes in Paris and Haifa.
Gitai's new film, "Rabin, the Last Day," has been timed to open on the 20-year anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize winner's assassination. The film deals less with Rabin's assassination (though it contains a local newsman's striking video footage of chaos surrounding the fatal act) than with its aftermath — a government commission's examination of what had happened.
Blending archival footage with re-enactments derived directly from the transcripts of the Shamgar Commission's official inquiry into the incident, the film avoids any dramatic fireworks, nor does it follow a straight narrative line. Each sequence fades to and from black, and we can shift from an imagined sequence of young gun-carrying Orthodox settlers being removed from an illegal outpost by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) back to footage of Rabin addressing the rally.
Though the commission was legally restricted to investigating only the "operative acts of negligence" that might have prevented the tragedy — there seemed to have been countless careless mistakes made by many people, from security at the Rabin rally to the doctors at the hospital — Gitai's film boldly does much more. It illuminates the political and cultural basis for such a national trauma and what Rabin's death means for Israel today, without ever turning into a mere polemic.
Rabin's assassin Yigal Amir was a self-righteous, 25-year-old right-wing religious activist. The film never conveys who he really is. Gitai is at his best when portraying the forces aligned against Rabin, whom he sees as holding collective responsibility for the tragedy.
When Rabin began to negotiate with the Palestinians and ultimately signed the Oslo Accords in 1993-95, which created the Palestinian Authority to provide limited self-governance over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and acknowledged that the PLO had become Israel's partner in permanent status negotiations about the remaining issues, a vehement opposition evolved. Among them were extremist rabbis who placed all sorts of Kabbalistic death curses on Rabin and settlers who didn't want to give up any territory to the Palestinians and saw Rabin as a betrayer of Zionism. Also included were Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party, which wanted to destabilize Rabin's government and take power, which they did not long after his death.
Netanyahu became the face of the opposition to the Oslo Accords, and Gitai provides archival footage of his rallies where Israel's most extremist elements are participants — some carrying posters declaring Rabin a Nazi or shouting "Death to Rabin."
Netanyahu was aware of the fanatical, violent elements drawn to the rallies and did nothing to mute their rage. In a recent PBS Frontline documentary "Netanyahu at War," David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said "Netanyahu was advised that there were real nut cases in the national religious camp that needed to be calmed down, but he never did that, to his enormous discredit."
Gitai's film provides an admiring portrait of Rabin, who had been the Chief of Staff of the IDF, and had shaped and organized the country's military to win the Six-Day War of 1967. It was hard to accuse a fearless Rabin of being pacifistic and soft on the Arabs. Still, his formidable achievements clearly did not make him immune from the rabid hatred of a large slice of Israeli society.
In Gitai's view Israel would have been a different country in the last 20 years if Rabin had not been assassinated. The murder ushered in an era where liberal and social-democratic Zionism was placed on the defensive and the West Bank occupation became a permanent fixture. What is worse is that all the proposed peace initiatives began to seem like unrealizable utopian dreams.
If Rabin had lived, ultimate reconciliation probably wouldn't have been achieved, but more hopeful, less hostile relations between Israel and the Palestinians would have come into being.