Born in Israel in 1950, Amos Gitai comes from a family of migrants. His father is a German architect who studied at the Bauhaus then moved to Palestine after the rise of the Nazi regime, while his mother comes from a Russian Zionists family which had fled to Palestine at the beginning of last century. Following his father’s footsteps Amos began his career as an architect, at first in Haifa, his hometown, and then in Berkeley, California, where he moved in 1977. In 1973, he took part in the Yon Kippur War, joining a rescue unit and surviving the crash of the helicopter he was travelling on. It was such an overwhelming experience that made him give up his career as an architect and led him to focus his attention to documentary cinema. In truth, he had already devoted himself to this activity while he was still a student, and actually filmed some documentaries for the Israeli television. Indeed, right from the beginning of his artistic career he had to struggle against censorship.
His debut work was the documentary Bayit (1980), banned by the Israeli Television that did not give permission to broadcast it. The movie metapohorically investigates Israel’s recent past by exploring the events occurring in a household in Jerusalem; this work already displays some of Gitai’s main features, such as the strong relationship between personal concerns and more general social issues. From this moment on, in fact, his enquiry sharply focuses on Israeli controversial political affairs, at first digging into its dealings with Palestine in movies such as Wadi (1980) and Field Diary (1982). Thereafter, he explores the complexities around Palestinian contemporary identity with In Search of Identity (1980) and eventually he widens his research involving global issues. Pineapple (1983) and Bangkok Bahrein (1984) are considered two examples of his last documentary stage, both works relating with the worldwide trades of products and human beings. Year1985 marks his switch from documentary to fiction films with Esther (1985), where he adapts the biblical text of Esther and sets the narration in the suburbs of modern Haifa. This stylistic switch does not cut him out of his country’s social, cultural and political issues, which maintain a relevant role in his movies, often embedded with personal concerns, as previously mentioned. We can see this in Kippur (2000), where he puts on screen his personal military experience, or even in Caramel (2009), based on his father’s past as an immigrant, but such an approach is perceivable almost in each of his projects.
In 1993, Gitai returned to Israel, after spending almost twenty years in the USA and Europe and with a recognised career as a filmmaker in the western world. This decision was driven by his deep affection for his country, that is after all one of the main characters in all his films, often offering a critical look. On several occasions Gitai claimed that the greatest tribute a filmmaker could pay to his own country was his capacity to criticize its weak points and identify the problems in the attempt of improving its condition. It is no surprise that his position resulted in a difficult relationship with the government of Israel and caused controversial reactions on a national and international level right from the beginning of his career. His decision to move to the USA and Europe was mainly due to the political hardships he was facing as a documentary filmmaker in his own country, where his works were often banned. Inevitably, his cinematography has hardly reached a commercial dimension, even though the switch to fiction films effectively widened his public. On the other hand, he was rewarded serveral times in Cannes, Venice, Locarno and other Film Festival of international relevance. Kippur won the François Chalais Award in 2000, while 2004 Promised land gained the CinemaAvvenire Award. Later on in 2008, at Locarno Film Festival he won the Pardo d’onore, a famous lifetime achievement award. Most of these awards recognized his personal involvement in human rights, cultural diversity and war issues, as in the case of A Letter to a Friend in Gaza that received the Human Rights Nights Award in Venice in 2018; in the same year A Tramway in Jerusalem was rewarded with the UNIMED Award.