In “West of the Jordan River,” controversial Israeli director Amos Gitai returns to the occupied territories for the first time since his 1982 “Field Diary” to observe how Israelis and Palestinians could together overcome the consequences of occupation. By appearing on-camera at times himself, the 66-year-old helmer delivers not only a thought-provoking, moving and surprisingly optimistic documentary, but an intimate, handmade artifact that can look forward to wide exposure on the festival circuit ahead.
Gitai’s four-decade carrier started during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when he shot 8mm footage of the fighting while serving in a helicopter rescue crew. Since then, he has never stopped publicly questioning his country’s politics: His first feature, “Home,” was censored in Israel, while “Field Diary,” the filmed journal he shot in the occupied territories before and during the invasion of Lebanon, stirred things up to such a degree that he moved to France for a stretch. Now, back in Cannes for the fifth time, Gitai unveils a sort of “Field Diary Revisited.” Though less astonishing that the earlier film, it will still give some unexpected food for thought for those left unsatisfied by the traditional news coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“West of the Jordan River” is structured like a road trip. In the absence of any high-level political push for reconciliation, ordinary citizens must seek solutions on the local level. With that in mind, the director travels around with a very light crew (a cameraman and a sound engineer), posing simple, direct questions to the inhabitants of various cities and small villages: How do they live? What do they hope for? What do they fear? How to they feel toward their neighbors? Despite the violence of some reactions (like the young Palestinian boy whose only wish is to die as a martyr), he also uncovers surprising bursts of hope.
Technique is obviously not the director’s priority. In fact, it’s pretty flat overall. Rather, the strength of the film lies on its choice of civilian subjects, whose local initiatives for peaceful coexistence between the two populations seem to be ignored not only by the international community, but also by the Israelis themselves. At one point, Gitai meets the members of Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran activists whose ambition is to expose the public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories and to bring an end to the occupation. He also encounters several women, some of them attending a support group for Palestinian and Israeli women who’ve lost family members in the conflict, others learning to hold a camera in order to document future police blunders, courtesy of an NGO called B’Tselem.
Despite Gitai’s clear anti-government position (he calls those in power “reactionary” and “racist”), the director goes out of his way to grant some space to the other side, including the young foreign-affairs minister Tzipi Hotovely, whose relatively mystical approach to Israeli geopolitics violently contrasts with the pragmatism of Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner whose 1995 assassination inspired Gitai’s feature “Rabin, the Last Day.”
“The camera strengthened me. … It’s like having a gun in my hands,” says one of the B’Tselem-trained apprentice reporters, though the idea may just as well have been spoken by Gitai himself.