When the Rabbinical Courts Administration convene this month for their annual meeting, a most unusual event was plugged into the schedule for the ultra-orthodox organization: Movie Night.
“Seventy years of Israeli history and 4000 years of Jewish history, nothing like this [has] happened,” said an ebullient Shlomi Elkabetz, a few days removed from hearing about the rabbis’ screening of “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” the film he directed with his sister Ronit regarding one of Israel’s most controversial laws, while he was in Los Angeles for AFI Fest in November. “Nobody managed to shake this authority. Nobody even questioned the law. I don’t have the sense I beat them. It was never my purpose. I wanted to bring the awareness up. I’m celebrating because I feel they’re listening.”
It’s quite likely no one in the organization had never even seen a film before due to concerns over modesty, the Elkabetzes’ film should feel familiar to the rabbis, detailing the lengthy and often torturous process of divorce in Israel, alluded to in the film’s title. A procedure that may be initiated by a woman, but can only be ended by a man who must ultimately give his consent, gett is the written document that one must obtain at the end of a marriage and when the two parties don’t mutually agree to separate, it leads to a mediation involving a trio of rabbis to settle the dispute. The trials are closed to the public, which may be why “Gett” became such a sensation in its native country, and its popularity led to Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, a head Rabbi of the high courts feeling the need to respond after being pressed by journalists to comment on the court’s depiction in the film.
Yet “Gett” deserves to be celebrated as a piece of cinema as well, a film that endured nearly as long a wait as its title character does to receive her day in court. As the third chapter of a trilogy that the Elkabetzes started with the 2004 drama “To Take a Wife” and carried on through the subsequent 2008 film “7 Days (Shiva),” the directing duo chronicled the growing disillusionment of Viviane (played by Ronit), a strong-willed woman trapped in a loveless marriage who struggles to find a way out. By the time “Gett” begins, she’s already waited for three years for the court to follow up on her petition for separation and yet because her husband (Simon Abkarian) refuses to show and has little inducement to do so, her hands are tied. Once he finally does appear, friends and family are brought in to attest to the health of their marriage, a futile exercise that, like Asghar Farhadi’s similarly-themed “A Separation” did for Iran, brings up far deeper issues in Israeli society in regards to gender inequality and national identity.
Extraordinarily well-crafted, the film may largely exist in the singe setting of the court, yet it continually adds new dimensions as it wears on, seeking out an understanding of each of its characters that they are prevented from seeing in one another, either because compromise would seemingly admit defeat or holding onto grudges is easier than to break with tradition. As “Gett” finally makes its way into American theaters this week, we present our full conversation with Elkabetz, who spoke of breaking tradition himself with his latest film, how he and his sister Ronit were able to accurately portray the secretive proceedings and how he studied his favorite sport to create tension for the film.
How did this become the third film in the trilogy?
It was actually always the third film. [In] the first scene of “To Take a Wife” that we shot 10 years ago, Viviane is sitting in the kitchen and all her brothers are there, surrounding her, and she’s not talking. It’s only them that are talking and they ask her, “What do you want?” And she doesn’t answer. “What do you want? Do you want a divorce?” He’ll never give you a divorce. And the rabbis will never give you a divorce. So you better go back and make peace with your husband.” So it was there from the first sentence. Of course, Viviane had to take the time to move from her very internal personal wish to leave this man until she had the guts and the ability, the opportunity to go to what we call the final frontier – Viviane and the law – because it starts with Viviane and herself, Viviane and her husband, Vivienne and her family and then Viviane and the state – society, the state. These are the stages she had to go through to become free.
If you had that process in mind from the start, did your ideas about the third film change when you finally got around to making it?
Of course, it changed a lot, but the stories were there. What happened was when we started to screen the other two films in Israel and all over the world, our perspective changed as well. The story that we told that at the beginning was a very personal story that became very public, so we didn’t have only our own point of view on it, but we had seen how people perceive Viviane and that of course changed the intensity of the story, and in “Gett,” she’s going public. We understood eventually, it’s not only the story of Vivienne asking for a divorce, it’s Viviane in a way confronting the law in any way she can, trying to change it for herself.
Is it true you spent a year doing research in the waiting room for the courts?
We did spend time in the court, but you cannot go into the court, so we had quite a long time in the waiting area, just seeing people coming out and in. The walls are very thin and you hear everything and we got the opportunity to talk to a lot of people. We got lucky once to get into a divorce ceremony, which was something very important for us to see with our eyes because none of us got divorced, so we needed it for the image. The courts are actually amazing because it’s so secretive. Your destiny is being put in the hands of those judges, but in a matter that you should [be able to] decide for yourself. Getting a divorce is not something you should have to beg for. Spending the time in the courts, what was really striking was not what we heard or the people we spoke with, because that we could interview people, but the images – to see these women wait to get in, how they look when they get out, and to see them maybe again a few months later. The images of these women and men spending their lives in the courts was something very striking and very, very powerful. That’s how we created the film.
Visually, the film is quite striking because it is largely limited to one location and yet you literally add new dimensions to the room through the way you shoot. How did you develop that?
The process was very long. We shot this film in the courtroom, not in a studio, and I really love to watch tennis. So we had this idea like when you watch the tennis court and you turn your head from left to right and from left to right, that’s the director’s shot of the courtyard. And slowly, we said what would happen if we shot the whole tennis game just from the point of view of the players, without seeing the court in general? Just seeing this tennis ball coming at you at 150 miles an hour, just before it strikes you or your racket, and you cut the picture and you see it going in the other direction. What kind of tension you could create by prolonging a moment until just a few seconds before it explodes, but from the point of view of the people? That’s why there is no master shot in any of the scenes and no director’s shot. The camera is always placed where somebody is sitting or seeing what somebody is seeing.
Then we started to deconstruct the space from the different points of view of the players, which enabled us to do a few things. We created a new space for every shot, which affects the direction of the film because you move – you’re up, you’re down. Each one of these shots standing out in a film alone would look very, very strange and bizarre, but when you connect all these very weird angles, something very interesting happened. We didn’t have to force anything on the room. It’s not like we had to manipulate the space to create [the action]. The angles are very natural. They’re angles of people looking at things and people looking at people and that’s how we stretched the space. We worked on [people giving] looks [to one another], going from one look to another look. Basically, Viviane doesn’t talk the whole film, so we could shoot Viviane looking and putting the perspective at the places we needed to put perspective. We had this one camera, and because we created those multiple shots, we could actually have more power in determining how the scene would progress and the emotional state of the scene. That was very important for this one room because it kind of gave us freedom to really work within the space and feel that we’re spreading it, then of course the language developed throughout the shoot and it became more and more and more complex.
Was there a particularly challenging day on set?
Because Viviane doesn’t speak the whole film. and we create the tension through her and it’s her point of view, we had this big scene of Viviane going up to testify on the stand and it had 20-something pages. We didn’t do rehearsals for this film because we didn’t want to kill the text. We wanted to eliminate any theatrical aspect to it. People just learned by heart and we worked on set and the week Ronit was supposed to shoot the scene, we started to work on the angles and we shot [a few takes] to understand what we were going to do and it killed us because it was so weird to listen to Viviane all of a sudden. The tension of the film broke.
It took us quite a long time to understand because we were waiting for Viviane to speak. Both of us — Ronit and I — were waiting for her to say what’s there and it took us two days to really understand that the power of Viviane is in not talking. We eliminated 15 pages of the scene and it was like a revelation, but until we got there, we said, we don’t have the film. We felt we don’t have the scene and if we don’t have the scene, we don’t have the film. Everything builds up to this moment. So we reconstructed the whole scene, then something interesting happened because in the first film “To Take a Wife,” the first scene of the movie, Viviane is talking to her brothers and we said, “Let’s just take a 10-minute shot of Viviane just listening to nothing.” Everybody left the set and we took this shot of Ronit where Viviane is listening and in the editing room, we actually took all of Ronit’s dialogue out completely. We left the scene as if it’s only Vivienne listening, and then we said, “That’s the power of Vivienne. She observes.” Yes, she explodes at the end, but she observes. So the journey from having 20 pages of dialogue into like what eventually you see in [“Gett”] is like a page-and-a-half of dialogue. That was really tough and scary to lose, but we decided not to shoot it this time and it was a very interesting procedure to go through.
Since you didn’t have to change locations, did you get to shoot in sequence?
70 percent. We still had some issues with the actors that had different commitments and stuff with lights, but 70 percent of the script was in order.
It actually had been six years since you last worked with your sister Ronit on the second chapter, “7 Days (Shiva).” Was it nice to reunite?
Yes, because after “Seven Days,” we took one year and we traveled with the film. It was 2009 and Ronit had many, many offers to act in France and then she took two-and-a-half years to do a lot of films as an actress and also got married. A the same time, I wrote and directed 15 chapters of a TV show in Israel and then I had this guerrilla project I shot called “Testimony,” about Palestinians and soldiers. We knew soon enough we have to meet and write “Gett” and it was amazing because we were waiting for that. Ronit and I are extremely connected. It doesn’t matter whether it was a period of film or not. It’s a constant dialogue and it was really, really exciting and surprising because we didn’t work for four years together on a film and many things happened. We were curious and tense about our reunion and to end the trilogy and it was brilliant. The rendezvous was amazing.
“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” opens on February 13th in Los Angeles at the Royal Theatre, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and in Florida at the Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth Theaters. A full list of theaters and dates it will be expanding to in the coming weeks can be found here.