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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2001
Breaking an uneasy silence
Director Amos Gitai returns to the frontline in 'Kippur'
The Yom Kippur war of 1973 was perhaps the great turning point in the history of post-independence Israel. While it was a defeat on the ground for the invading Arab armies, the psychological impact of the invasion, launched on a religious holiday and resulting in heavy Israeli casualties, resonates even today.
For filmmaker Amos Gitai, it has taken 27 years to come to terms with his own wartime trauma. His film "Kippur" is a largely autobiographical account of his own experiences as a reservist suddenly called to duty, serving as a stretcher-bearer on a medevac helicopter. Gitai's film retraces his wartime experiences from a deliberately limited, first-person perspective, which culminates in a harrowing scene in which his helicopter is shot down.
When he was in town for this year's Tokyo International Film Festival, Gitai spoke of his distaste for the typical war-movie conventions.
"My idea was to give you the impression of war as raw as it comes," said the director. "Because of the way it's portrayed in the media, we tend to think of war as a very organized activity, but actually it's total disorder, chaos."
Gitai recalls the eerie onset of the war: "Yom Kippur is quite a silent holiday, and that silence was broken by sirens."
In the film, Gitai's alter-ego Weinraub (Liron Lero), a young college student, is making love to his girlfriend to the sound of howling sax music which becomes overpowered by sirens. In a striking image, their love-making involves painting a canvas and then covering their bodies in the paint in what Gitai calls "a secular ritual." As the reds, yellows and greens merge, the paint morphs from a rainbow of color to a gloppy, olive-brown muck, a premonition of the battlefield mud Weinraub will be slogging through in the days to come.
Weinraub heads toward the Golan front in his car, accompanied by his friend Ruso (Tomer Ruso), who is far more eager to see some action. After getting caught in both traffic jams and headlong retreats, the duo give a lift to a medic named Klauzner. He puts them to work on a helicopter rescue team, picking up the wounded from both sides of the frontline and ferrying them back to hospitals.
The film's form aims to capture the reality of being thrown into combat. Dialogue is sparse and shouted, no long soliloquies among the shrapnel here. Scenes are shot in long continuous takes, generally framing the action from a distance. And the battlefield scenes are deliberately shot without the use of computer graphics.
"I didn't want to manipulate the image by inserting or subtracting certain elements," said Gitai. "I wanted to do it the old way, where the effects are what you see in the actual image we shot. It's more raw; you can feel the difference."
This approach nearly hit its limit in filming the climactic helicopter downing, which Gitai describes as "a major undertaking, using hydraulic systems and towers. It took a lot of planning, but it was important to keep the camera on the characters in there, to film the crash from inside the helicopter. Because the film really looks at the human face as a mirror of this war."
For Gitai, re-living this event was surely traumatic. "It was something I wanted to forget," admitted the director. "It took quite a long time before I found a way to speak about it."
In a sense, Gitai is burying the ghosts of his past. "I remember standing on the Golan on a freezing cold day," he recalled, "shooting this war scene, and one of the crew members said to me, 'Hey, Amos, you've found a really elaborate way of doing public psychoanalysis.' [Grins.] And I guess that's part of it."