West of the Jordan River
France, Israel 2017
Amos Gitai is an Israeli filmmaker who has devoted his life to using the art of cinema to promote peace. In West of the Jordan River Gitai swiftly establishes the principle tenets and aim of the film through a series of outtakes from his earlier works, showing him as a younger man working to chronicle Arab-Israeli relations and the thorny path to peace.
West of the Jordan River is Gitai’s first return to the Palestinian occupied territories since his 1982 documentary Field Diary, and the film portrays the efforts of people from both Palestine and Israel to overcome the effects of the occupation.
As his synopsis states: «Faced with the failure of politics to solve the occupation issue, these men and women rise and act in the name of their civic consciousness. This human energy is a proposal for long overdue change.»
«In the film he likens his work to that of an archaeologist.»
In the film he likens his work to that of an archaeologist undertaking a visual diary that excavates the recent history of a path to peace that remains unsolved.
Released last year, where the film screened in the Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes, the film – described by The Hollywood Reporter as an «anguished letter to his homeland» – has only become more pressing as time has passed, given the latest tragic clashes in the West Bank.
Now making the rounds of international film festivals (most recently in the Masters section of the Vilnius International Film Festival Kinopavasaris in March), West of the Jordan River comes at a critical point in Middle East politics.
Scratching at the past
«I want to scratch layer after layer to get to the substance of the matter to understand how we could possibly reach some reconciliation in the region,» he says in a clip from Field Diary. Gitai uses the clip as a reference for making a film that stylistically picks up where he left off, examining in «capsules» how people may be the change that is needed in the Middle East peace process.
Peeling back the layers and scratching at the past, Gitai splices in scenes from his earlier film: an Israeli checkpoint, here – interviews with residents of the Occupied Territories, there. One wonders about the fate of those portrayed, what happened, for example, to the boy of 10 or 11 years old hawking a basket of strawberries to drivers at the checkpoint? What future did he have in an inexorable conflict that has killed so many of Palestine’s young (and also seen much blood shed on the Israeli side).
«If we had our own country, we could work,» argues one man among a group refused entry to Israel at a West Bank checkpoint. «But closed checkpoints are shit.»
A woman speaks of the daily killings; a man interjects to say that just that day a pregnant Palestinian woman and her (presumably unborn) child killed in Jerusalem.
Occupied territories as «fiction»
More excerpts from the 1994 interview with Yitzhak Rabin – the former Prime Minister of Israel and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was assassinated in1995 – are also included in the film. Inserted to add context to the consequences of the failure to secure a reliable peace plan at the time, Rabin talks of the polarisation of the peace process, of how Islamic groups Hamas and others, were lined up against the process with backing from Syria.
«Our government is insane; crazy young settlers run the country» – head of Breaking the Silence
All are elements of the intransigence that continues to disfigure the Middle East (and since the mass migration to Europe of those fleeing war European politics too – as April’s re-election for Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orban witnessed).
But Rabin insists that despite the resentments and doubts, «peace can be made[…] and it can be made sometimes even with the toughest enemies.»
Fast-forward 22 years and Gitai picks up the anguished story of peace in 2016 with an interview with the hard-line Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely – a self-described «religious right-winger».
Today it is no longer a world of checkpoints and political will for a peace process, but one of a border wall and embedded intransigence.
Hotovely insists that Israeli settlers have the right to live as Israeli citizens in the disputed West Bank settlements and that the notion of «occupied territories» is a fiction.
Not all Israelis think that way: next Gitai visits Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers set up to document Israeli military activity in the West Bank, which «questions the moral price» Israelis pay for the West Bank occupation.
«Our government is insane; crazy young settlers run the country,» the head of Breaking the Silence tells Gitai when asked about the situation today.
Ari Shavit, a journalist for Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz, baldly states that unless Israel changes course in the next decade – and alters its history of repeated mistakes – time will run out and it will effectively be writing its own suicide note.
«Gitai offers a glimmer of hope that simple humanity may one day offer a way to peace.»
«That’s a dramatic opinion,» Gitai drily notes as his film continues to catalogue a situation that reflects in sharp relief precisely those many years of mistakes and missed opportunities for peace.
A glimmer of hope
Gitai relentlessly digs deeper into the issue that affect ordinary people, visiting a parents circle that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who share the horrific experience of losing children to the conflict.
In what is one of the most emotionally challenging sequences of the film, women talk of losing sons and lovers to the conflict – and of the long road to reconciliation. A Jewish woman who emigrated to Israel in 1942 from Iraq at the age of nine, talks of how she and her husband keep an «Arab home» and discusses the difference in mentalities and approaches to life that form just one of the challenges to peace.
Through interviews and reflections of many people drawn into the conflict – both those with liberal views and those with conservatives – Gitai offers a glimmer of hope that simple humanity may one day offer a way to peace, even if current circumstances make for a very bleak forecast.