Promised Land

in 49th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Einar Guldvog Staalesen

Amos Gitai is important to Israel. So I believe. And he is troublesome. For the same reason: he balances and adjusts the much-too-homogeneous image, created by the Israelis and their allies, of their country, people, religiousness and culture.

This year’s film, Promised Land, is about the smuggling of Eastern European women to brothels in Eilat and Haifa. Gitai provides no background information about the women nor the smugglers, but the film is mercilessly aggressive in its exposure of conditions and systems.

To the women, the Israeli border control does not seem particularly strict. In the first scene, Russian girls and Egyptian Bedouins sit side by side around a campfire in the Sinai Desert. The following day, the girls are transported to the border where mafia members from both sides do their trading, smoothed by long practice. The beauties are auctioned off to Israeli pimps. Prices vary according to appearance and age; virgins command the highest prices.

Promised Land was shown outside of competition in Valladolid. Amos Gitai was a guest of honour at the festival, and twelve of his documentaries and nine of his fiction films constituted a separate section.

”I was probably quite radical in some of my earliest documentaries too,” Amos Gitai says. In the 1980s, he had to live in exile for several years, partly due to his films. However, he finds it interesting that we, who are best acquainted with his feature films, think he is becoming increasingly dangerous. That is what he told us in Valladolid.

Many people outside of Israel became aware of Amos Gitai in 1999 when Kadosh won great international praise and attention in Cannes. When the film was presented in Thessalonica a few months later, the Israeli ambassador held a reception after the screening.

”I am one of those who have had to wait for a long time to receive recognition in my own country. When I presented the script for Kadosh, it was rejected by the film commission; when I showed them the first shots, funding for further production was refused; and when the film had been edited, another refusal arrived.

”Things changed with international attention,” Gitai says.

Kadosh had opened a window through which few had had a chance to look earlier; a view into a fundamentalistic Jewish community where it is up to the rabbi to decide who shall spend their lives together. The rabbi decides on a forced divorce after ten years of marriage when the couple had failed to produce children.

”Thank you, oh Lord, for not having made me a woman,” Meir, the main character, says in his morning prayer.

Kadosh is the third film in Gitai’s trilogy about everyday life in Israel. The first two films are also controversial, but the immediate impression is that the lives lived in those two films are quite ordinary. However, under the surface, we discover more interesting aspects.

Gitai portrays life in Israel and reflects on Jewish themes in all of his fiction films. Still, the films are not alike. Amos Gitai, an aesthete who is trained as an architect, changes his style completely in Promised Land. He uses video for the first time, the camera is mostly handheld, the lighting is sparse, the editing restless. Yiddish sound is mixed with the rock muzac of the hooker bars. He has made the film seem like a TV report.

“The use of video is an aesthetic choice. I wanted to create restlessness, and credibility. The film’s expression must correspond with its content,” Gitai says.

After its premiere in Israel, a reporter at the military radio station in Israel urged the authorities to make sure that any future film made by Gitai’s hand and head be stopped. Promised Land might well jeopardise Gitai’s chances of receiving any further funding from Israel.

However, Gitai believes he will be able to produce yet another film about Israel’s tender soul. His collaborators abroad will surely contribute to that. Einar

Guldvog Staalesen