Israeli director Amos Gitai’s work is being extensively showcased at the Forum during this year’s Berlin Film Festival. In addition to this new documentary about memory and identity, one of the strongest of his recent output, he has a video installation in the fest’s new Expanded Forum sidebar. A major career retrospective will begin right after the festival closes.
“News From Home/News From House,” the final installment of Gitai’s doc trilogy about a stone house in West Jerusalem that has changed hands with governments, brings the generation-long saga to a poignant close.
Though he can offer no answer to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over property and birthright, Gitai effectively poses the question in a concrete way, using one patrician building as his focal point. Spanning 25 years of Israel’s history, the film vaunts a fascinating range of characters, but at the same time risks losing its way in a flood of details. TV audiences interested in the region will find this third go an engrossing stand-alone.
The first film, “House” (1980), shot in black and white in striking 16mm imagery, showed Palestinian stone-cutters hewing enormous stones out of raw rock for a private home. It was judged too problematic to be shown by its producer, Israeli television. “A House in Jerusalem” (1997) revisited the same building to see what changes time had wrought.
The new film, shot on HD, integrates some of the previous material with workmen adding an extension to the house.
Early in the film, Gitai compares the role of documentary to excavating a human archaeological site: “You dig and you find fragments of a story.” For him, the history of Israel is the history of displaced people — both Jews and Arabs — and his house trilogy provides an ingenious way to examine the diaspora.
Researching property records, Gitai located many members of the original Palestinian family who owned the lovely multistoried stone house on a shady street. Like all their neighbors, the well-to-do Dajani family fled Jerusalem in 1948, when the state of Israel was declared.
In contrast to the Dajanis bitter nostalgia for a house they still consider rightfully theirs but can no longer set foot in, current owner Claire Cesari reasons that she can do nothing to change history. A liberal who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Istanbul, she is yet another example of the regional diaspora.
Never a believer in less is more, Gitai tacks on a lot of tangential material toward the end that dilutes his main point. One strong voice that could have ended the film comes from a young Palestinian father of six living outside Jerusalem, who expresses his anger at being forced to demolish the house he has built on his own property at the same time that the government invites Jewish immigrants from Russia to build homes.
Backed into a corner by the young man, Gitai, who doesn’t believe the Dajanis will ever win a legal battle to get their house back, admits it would be fair if they did.