Israeli Cinema Is Finally Tackling Rabin's Assassination, 20 Years Later

The release of Amos Gitai's 'Rabin, the Last Day' and Erez Laufer's 'Rabin in His Own Words' highlights the contrasting approaches to the former prime minister's death taken by features and documentaries.

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A scene from Amos Gitai's 'Rabin, The Last Day.'
A scene from Amos Gitai's 'Rabin, The Last Day.'Credit: Screen grab

Israeli feature films have largely stayed silent on the killing of Yitzhak Rabin, until now. Twenty years have elapsed since the only assassination of a serving Israeli prime minister, who paid for a peace policy with his life; 20 years since the State of Israel grappled with one of the most traumatic events in its history. But fictional films, it seems, just forged ahead, surprisingly choosing to avoid this obstacle. An unwritten cinematic dictum says that films reflect the reality in which they are made. With regard to Rabin’s assassination, though, it seems Israeli cinema has not followed the rules.

The only filmmaker who ventured to prod this open wound was the late Assi Dayan. Just three years after Rabin’s assassination by Yigal Amir on November 4, 1995, Dayan dared take a semi-satirical glance at it with his short film “How to Cover Your Ass,” in which a Tel Aviv leftist uses peace rallies as an alibi for an affair he’s conducting and Rabin’s murder disrupts his plans.

Why was the assassination otherwise overlooked by Israeli cinema for two decades? What caused feature filmmakers to distance themselves from the subject? How did their documentary colleagues deal with it? And how is the distance of 20 years helping filmmakers deal with it now?

Two new films — Amos Gitai’s feature“Rabin, the Last Day” and Erez Laufer’s documentary “Rabin in His Own Words” — help offer answers to these questions. It was actor Moshe Ivgy who nearly — but only nearly — went down in history as the first to integrate the assassination into an Israeli feature. In the years following Rabin’s death, Ivgy began working on a feature he would write and direct, “And on the Third Day” (eventually released in 2011). The initial plan was that the chaos and general disintegration depicted in the drama would ultimately lead, toward the end of the film, to Rabin’s assassination. Drafts of the screenplay were written and everything was ready – but then Ivgy changed his mind and rewrote the screenplay.

“In the first versions of the film,” recalls Ivgy, “it was supposed to have ended with Rabin’s assassination. It was supposed to have been as a result of the decadence, egoism, corruption and madness — of everything here being rotten. In such a situation, an assassination like that is almost inevitable. But then I said to myself that every year they put Rabin’s assassination through the mill, that there is too much related to it – memorials, debates, talk – and, therefore, it might be better if I went for something else. I felt we were still traumatized and that perspective was needed in order to look at the assassination from a distance, to see what it has done to us.”

New commission of inquiry

This perspective served Gitai well when he began working on “Rabin, the Last Day,” which premiered this summer at the Venice Film Festival (the Israeli premiere will be on the 20th anniversary of the assassination). Gitai’s film tries to be “the commission of inquiry that wasn’t”: If 1996’s Shamgar Commission examined the operative failures that led to the assassination, “Rabin, the Last Day” tries to reveal the systematic incitement that operated here, both before and after the murder.

According to Gitai, the perspective that’s now possible, 20 years on, is the catalyst that’s encouraging filmmakers to integrate Rabin and the assassination into their works. “I think there’s distress among quite a large group in Israeli society,” he says. “We’re all stuck with the results of this event from 20 years ago, which changed a lot of things in the Israeli reality.

From the documentary "Rabin in his own Words."

“Alongside the image of the ‘grandfather’ that he radiated, there was a simple directness to Rabin’s behavior, devoid of media savvy and layers of sophistication, but rather, a kind of integrity,” adds Gitai. “In the absence of this figure, the distress is more and more pronounced every single day. It permeates through to artists in various media and calls for a response. The fact that the current [peace] situation is stuck also contributes to this. People are realizing that maybe it’s possible to consider other options. For me, this was the trigger to make the film.”

And yet, how did it happen that an event like Rabin’s assassination, which was so tangibly present in the Israeli reality, didn’t find its way into Israeli feature films until now?

“I think it can be explained with armchair psychology,” says cinema researcher Yael Munk. “Rabin’s assassination was represented in Israeli cinema by the death of the father – a theme that hovered over the films of the 1990s, even before Rabin’s assassination. In this sense, his murder is a self-fulfilling (cinematic) prophecy. According to Israeli cinema, the death of the father not only entails a great deal of grief, but also cuts you off from an ideological chain, and is therefore freeing. I think that after Rabin was murdered, the shock was too large to be translated into film. But replacing the assassination with the theme of the father’s death made it possible to speak in another way about the alienation from that same ideological chain.”

Munk cites several films that opened with the death of the father, including “Tears Fall by Themselves” (1998) and “Mr. Baum” (1997). The films “Things,” aka “Past Continuous” (1995), “Sh’Chur” (1994) and “Eddie King” (1992) were also made prior to the assassination. In all these films, says Munk, “The father isn’t just a particular individual, but also the figure who connects the son to the nation. And Rabin, as a controversial father figure – and all fathers become controversial at a certain point in their lives – was a figure who gave validity to Israeliness.”

Reacting in real time

The situation in documentary film, however, was the opposite of that in features. Documentaries about Rabin, the environment in which the assassination took place and its impact on society and the state began to emerge soon after the murder, and continued to be made over the years. Yeud Levanon’s “119 Bullets + 3” (1995), Yehuda Kaveh’s “Rabin: Soldier in the Army of Peace” (1995), Limor Pinhasov’s “Filmed by Yitzhak” (2009) and Arik Henig’s “Rabin-Peres: Everything is Personal” (2007) are just a few examples. The documentary filmmakers didn’t hesitate to pick up a camera immediately after the assassination and tell a story connected to the man or his historical role.

Joining that list is Laufer’s new documentary, “Rabin in His Own Words,” which premiered at the Haifa Film Festival last month and will be broadcast on Yes Docu on the anniversary of the assassination. Unlike Gitai’s, Laufer’s film is biographical in nature: It deals mainly with the figure of Rabin and the story of his life, and does so in a fascinating manner. Utilizing numerous archive clips, Rabin himself narrates the story here, in his own words, without the involvement of other talking heads.

Laufer says the 20th anniversary of the assassination was his catalyst for making the film. However, it was only when he thought of letting Rabin tell the story himself that he decided to forge ahead with the documentary. “I didn’t want to talk to other people,” the director says. “They asked me why, since that way you’d get to know more about Rabin’s character. But I wanted to learn about him only from the things that he said and wrote. Beyond that, there’s also an emphatic statement here: You assassinated him, yet he will still speak. Everyone has already spoken — those who wished him well and those who wished him ill — and now he’s going to get up and tell his story. If it’s possible to bring Rabin back for a brief moment, it’s possible on the cinema screen. Obviously, I don’t pretend to say this is the film that Rabin would have made about himself, because, after all, I’m the one who chose the materials and edited them. Nonetheless, there is a limit to my ability to manipulate when I rely on his words. I hope he’s looking down from above now, watching the film and smiling.”

Yitzhak Rabin.Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO

Documentary films often deal with cinematic biographies or historical events long before feature films do. “This is, among other things, because in a feature film you have to find an actor,” suggests Laufer. “When the real character is alive and well, you can’t find an actor who will be convincing. Mike Brant, for example — to this day, people have been trying to make a feature film about him.” (The Israeli-French pop star enjoyed success in the early 1970s, but committed suicide in Paris in 1975; Laufer made the documentary “Mike Brant: Laisse moi t’aimer” in 2002.) “When you’re talking about someone real, there are many factors that can prevent a film from being believable. It could be that, in Rabin’s case, until now everything has looked too soon, too fresh – he was too strong a figure for someone to try stepping into his shoes. The audience would have had difficulty accepting this. If the film about Edith Piaf [“La Vie en Rose,” 2007] had been made a year after her death, for example, the audience wouldn’t have accepted it,” adds Laufer.

“The 1990s was the decade of the documentary,” says Munk, seeking to explain its quick response to Rabin’s assassination when compared to feature films. “All of a sudden, with the establishment of the New Fund for Cinema and TV, there were large budgets available. And, by its very nature, the documentary impulse is to capture in real time, as close as possible to the event. The films that were made after Rabin’s murder don’t solve the puzzle of the assassination, but rather, for the most part, express a lament on the death of the father (the same subject that was already appearing in feature films). Therefore, they show repeated slow-motion shots of Rabin on the stage singing ‘Song for Peace’ [just prior to his assassination], and also the ‘candle children’ [the name given to the young people who publicly mourned Rabin’s death at the Tel Aviv square where he was murdered]. The shots are identical – only the structure changes in order to create a personal lament.

“After Rabin’s assassination, a lot of people felt they had something to say about the matter, but only the documentary filmmakers succeeded in reacting almost in real time,” adds Munk. “The feature film entails larger budgets, funding submissions, etc., and when something isn’t created in real time, it gets pushed to the nostalgic margins of history.”

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