Portman gets in the zone with Gitai

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      TORONTO””When Princess Amidala says she'd like to make a movie with you, the only thing to do is trust in the Force.

      Natalie Portman was in Israel studying Hebrew and Arabic at Hebrew University when she e-mailed Amos Gitai, one of the country's most acclaimed and controversial filmmakers (Promised Land, Kadosh), to see if he'd like to work with her.

      At the same time Portman was e-mailing, Gitai was mulling ideas for the story that became Free Zone (which opens Friday [June 2] at Tinseltown). Gitai and Portman went for dinner to talk possibilities. “I also kind of asked her about her life and what she was into, and she was in a kind of a quest and kind of a search into her own identity, so I was interested in that,”  he remembers. “And I kind of shaped the figure of Rebecca in some sort of relation to what she was in.” 

      After Gitai met Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, the movie came together at light speed. “I think that each film has its own personality, and this one has the kind of personality of a maverick,”  Gitai says. “We composed the project in November, we shot in January, and were showing in Cannes in May. So everything went like” ””Gitai makes a whooshing sound””“like a rocket.” 

      In Free Zone, Rebecca is an American who finds herself in the middle of a dispute between two imposing women””an Israeli (Hana Laszlo) and a Palestinian (Hiam Abbass)””over a car deal gone bad. “Natalie, she plays a very delicate role as an observer, somebody who's drawn into the situation by looking for her own identity. And I think she's really spectacular.” 

      Sitting in a room at the Hotel Inter?Continental just before his film's North American premiere at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, Gitai explains that although he'd never created a role specifically for a performer before, he always rewrites his scripts once the cast is in place. His parts clearly fit well. Laszlo received the best-actress award at Cannes for her Free Zone performance.

      Most of the story takes place in a part of Jordan known as a “free zone”  because taxes and tariffs don't apply, and people from throughout the region go there to swap cars. The real “free zone”  borders Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, but Free Zone was actually shot in Jordan””the first Israeli film ever made there. Gitai even worked his own diplomatic magic, merging crews from both countries. So even making the movie the way he did was a statement, which certainly suits Gitai. “Most of my films, they open questions. I'm originally an architect, then I decided to make films, and I think I'm a kind of a witness and Israel is a great drama. And it's a rare situation that you can be a witness, with the medium of our time, which is cinema, and register the event.” 

      He suspects it's this drama that makes Israel so interesting to the rest of the world. “Israel is a country in a volcanic state, so the lava is still soft; it doesn't have the final shape. It's not so predictable. That's why the media organizations are all interested, because it's such a good soap, a media soap. One evening you go, 'Okay, look at the Israelis and how tough they are.' And the next they say, 'What kind of savages are they?' So this will feed the evening news with the soap spirit.” 

      Asked why he switched from architecture to filmmaking, Gitai's demeanour shifts, and even though he's retelling a story he's told hundreds of times and dealt with in his film Kippur, his voice still softens.

      “I'm part of the generation that was shaped by the Yom Kippur War,”  Gitai says. “I was studying architecture and drafted to the army when the war started, and I was in this helicopter, bringing people to the hospital. And on the fifth day of the war, the helicopter was shot by a Syrian missile and the copilot was decapitated. The helicopter was full of blood, and the other pilot managed to fly without the cockpit, without the copilot, three more minutes, to get out of Syrian fire and crash on Israeli soil.

      “Coming back, I was in hospitals, and it took me several months to recompose myself, and I think after that I felt I should say something meaningful,”  Gitai recalls. “And I gained my right to say what I think. And in the Israeli context, this is important.” 

      But Gitai isn't too concerned about whether or not people like what he has to say. “In the show biz I see a lot of people with a very profound desire to be loved by everybody. There are certain people who, if they loved me, I'd be almost insulted.” 