'I didn't want to remember'

50 years on, filmmaker Amos Gitai remembers Yom Kippur War in museum exhibit

Controversial creator of ‘Kippur,’ ‘Kadosh’ and dozens of other works, who was shot down in battle, draws on difficult memories for ‘Kippur, War Requiem’ at Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

From filmmaker Amos Gitai's 2000 film 'Kippur,' featured in Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibit marking 50 years since the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
From filmmaker Amos Gitai's 2000 film 'Kippur,' featured in Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibit marking 50 years since the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

For decades, filmmaker Amos Gitai tried to forget about the 1973 Yom Kippur War and what happened during his time on the battlefields.

He became an architect, earning a doctorate in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and ultimately turned to filmmaking, making sometimes-controversial films over the last 40 years about the complicated Israeli reality that he both loves and hates.

Now, 50 years later, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is featuring an exhibit created by Gitai, “Kippur, War Requiem,” unpacking pieces of what happened to him, his comrades and so many others during the three harrowing weeks of war.

The exhibit opened on September 13 and closes January 13, unfolding its contents throughout two of the museum’s main galleries.

The first room is an introduction to Gitai and his personal Yom Kippur War history. He was just 22, a veteran of the Egoz unit starting his second year of architecture school at the Technion, when the war broke out.

Gitai and a childhood friend traveled to the front, trying to figure out where they could help as reserve soldiers, and ended up joining an ad hoc helicopter rescue team.

This file photo taken on March 10, 2016, shows Israeli director Amos Gitai at the opening his exhibition ‘Amos Gitai: Chronicle of an assassination foretold’ at MAXXI museum in Rome. (AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI)

They rescued injured soldiers from the front for five days. On the sixth day of the war, October 11, Gitai’s 23rd birthday, they were on a mission to rescue a pilot who had been shot down in Syrian territory when their own helicopter was shot and their pilot immediately killed.

The copilot crash-landed inside Israeli territory, and Gitai and the rest of the wounded crew were rescued and sent to a hospital to recover. Gitai never returned to the battlefront.

Those five days and the traumatic crash landing were imprinted upon him, reverberating for years but also frozen in time. There were also physical remnants left over from those days of war.

Gitai filmed snippets of images and impressions during the five days, using a Super 8 camera his mother had gifted him for his birthday. Now purpled and aged, those shots offer indelible moments of what Gitai was seeing around him.

“They are like the nucleus that later informed his work,” said curator Mira Lapidot in an interview at the museum.

Filmmaker Amos Gitai’s scribbles on a newspaper page after the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

Once Gitai was out of the hospital, his girlfriend, an art therapist in training, gave him crayons and told him to draw what he was thinking and feeling.

Those rough portraits, along with snippets of Gitai’s Super 8 clips, make up two walls of the first gallery. A third wall contains edited moments from “Kippur, War Memories,” Gitai’s 1997 Channel 2 documentary, in which he interviewed the surviving members of the helicopter rescue team.

The fourth wall features a brief, haunting scene from “Kippur,” (2000), the fictionalized feature that Gitai made about the war, based loosely on the events that took place in his own life. Covering an entire wall, the scene is replayed over and over, showing the first, shocking moments of the war, on a street in Tel Aviv.

Before the entrance into the main gallery, Gitai’s thoughts about that time period appear in English and Hebrew on two walls, along with another one of his etchings, this one scribbled on a page of newspaper from the period right after the war.

“The event itself was quite short, but it was no less an encounter with death,” wrote Gitai, his words printed directly on the wall.

Those words provide a quiet but disturbing entry into the main gallery, which has a more dramatic incursion into Gitai’s memories, with four massive screens featuring scenes from “Kippur.”

Other clips from Gitai’s oeuvre of dozens of films and documentaries are screened on eight gravestone-like slabs, constructed by the filmmaker with an actor friend who is a carpenter. Those clips include footage of Gitai’s mother, Efratia Margalit, along with scenes from his 2015 film “Rabin, The Last Day” and other works.

It’s a room filled with noise, tension and fear, along with heartbreak and pain for what took place on the plateaus and hilltops of the Golan Heights during the war.

“Kippur” was shot 27 years after the war. It took a long time for him to feel ready to make the film, “because I wanted to forget,” Gitai said, also speaking with The Times of Israel at the museum.

“I didn’t want to remember,” he said. “It’s such a violent and traumatic event so obviously every individual has a different way of dealing with it in time.”

At the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, September 2023 through January 2024, featuring an exhibit created by filmmaker Amos Gitai, ‘Kippur, War Requiem” (Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

He recalled that during the filming of “Kippur,” one of the actors said to him, “‘Amos, you found a very spectacular and expensive way to do psychoanalysis.'”

He doesn’t deny that.

Gitai decided to make “Kippur” in the late 1990s, when there were signs that the Middle East was moving into a rosy, peaceful period

“I said, ‘Okay, now that they’re talking about peace, let’s show what is war,'” said Gitai.

When the film came out, many of his close friends didn’t even know about Gitai’s Yom Kippur War experiences. He didn’t want to be a hero, and was content to let them have a misconception of who he was.

“I like contradictions, like everybody else,” said Gitai. “I both love this place, I’m hostile to it, and I’m critical.”

Gitai, who lives in Paris and Israel, spoke of the strong bond he has with the Jewish state, his understanding of why it exists, and his concerns about where the country is heading.

He also noted his sense of civic duty in creating the exhibit and in making his films, as he prefers to work when he is moved or disturbed by something.

He and Lapidot, the curator, began discussing the exhibit five years ago, when she was still curating at the Israel Museum. When Lapidot moved to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art two years ago, Gitai and the exhibit came with her. It was shown as a smaller version in Paris’s Pompidou Center in the spring.

“It was mentally difficult to work on this, and every day we worked on it a lot,” he said. “I decided not to stay more than three or four hours, because then it makes it difficult to sleep.”

Despite the difficulties reliving the events of the war, Gitai said he felt an obligation to create the exhibit.

“These round dates are always a kind of incentive, a moment of reflection,” said Lapidot of the 50-year anniversary, adding that the war in Ukraine and the ongoing protests against the judicial overhaul, in which many Yom Kippur War veterans have been taking an active part, created overarching elements to “Kippur, War Requiem.”

“There was a strong notion of betrayal in the Yom Kippur War,” she said. “This” — the overhaul and ensuing strife in Israeli society — “feels like a second betrayal.”

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