It’s no small feat to create an intense drama in one room for the duration of a feature length film. But Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem stands as one of the best examples of such a drama that you will ever see (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem shows how to make a powerful, resonant drama using one setting — a film review). In the film, the brother and sister directing and writing duo Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz present a married couple in Israel who have arrived at such an impasse they can no longer communicate. The wife, Viviane, played by Ronit — who is also a major acting force in Israel, wants a divorce, but the husband (Simon Abkarian) does not. Since he is orthodox, they need to address this before a rabbinical court of three rabbis. In Israel, for devout marriages, the only way out is a ceremony called a gett. These getts have long been secretive affairs that happen behind closed doors where wives are treated as property of the husband. If the woman wants a divorce but the husband does not, the rabbis cannot grant the gett, which makes for a Kafkaesque version of divorce proceedings.
If you have never heard about such a thing, it’s only because the subject has been taboo in Israel. Speaking via phone from Los Angeles, the brother of the filmmaking team notes that there would have been no way he and his sister could have made this movie 10 years ago, when they began a trilogy of movies in tribute to their mother. The first film, 2004’s To Take a Wife, was more autobiographical, he notes. In it, Viviane is a young woman who only dreams of divorce while trying to raise three children with an unloving husband who married her for tradition’s sake. The second film, 2008’s 7 Days follows the same family, as its familiar loveless conflict continues during the seven days of shiva after the death of a loved one. With Gett, however, they decided to write Viviane a different ending. “We call it the imaginary biography of her in the sense of what would have happened if a woman like our mother would have gone for a divorce trial in Israel,” says Elkabetz.
In their film, as noted in the still image of trailer at the end of this article, the trial lasts a long time. Still, there have been divorce trials in rabbinical courts that have lasted as much as 20 years, notes the filmmaker. Elkabetz understands reality can be stranger than fiction, so to allow the film to have more of an impact, he and his sister tried not to make their movie as extreme. “One of our initial thoughts was that we were not going to take the worst case because there are horrible cases. We tried to take cases where there is no violence, there is no physical abuse. The kids are grown. Everybody left home. She’s an independent woman. She has her own salary. She wants only one thing. She just wants to be free, and we took this case and said, What happens if we put this case in the Israeli law system? Let’s see how the Israeli law system copes with that one woman who wants to be free and wants to get a divorce where the husband says, no.”
The film has since become a phenomena in the sibling’s country. It opened in Israel at the end of September 2014, and it’s still in theaters. The co-director admits that he and his sister never saw this interest coming. “It became like a political movement,” he says. “It was beautifully accepted, and it was on the news everyday in every media, in the late edition, in the state papers and on the blogs and on the Internet. The film was endorsed by ministers, by parliament members, and the most amazing thing that happened was that the chief rabbi from Israel was repeatedly asked, ‘Have you seen, Gett? Have you seen, Gett?’ His response was always, ‘I never went to the cinema, and I don’t go to the cinema, so I didn’t see Gett.’ And he was repeatedly asked and asked, and he eventually came back … and he said, ‘Listen, we have decided to screen Gett in the annual rabbinical convention this year.'”
The debate in Israel has been intense to change matters. The result of that screening can be read in this short article: “Rabbis cry gewalt after watching Israeli film ‘Gett.'” To sum it up, the rabbis at least acknowledged they have an image problem on their hands. Elkabetz says since no cameras have ever been allowed to document a gett, and they are not open to the public, he and his sister interviewed people who have been through one. But the drama in their film is a fiction based on characters they have followed for 10 years.
Some may wonder how can a nearly two-hour film in one room, with nearly the same characters, ever offer a tightly paced drama. “I don’t want to be pretentious and say we always know what we are doing,” offers Elkabetz. “I don’t want to say I have a key to make it happen, but we knew that the story is very radical, and we knew that we are facing a sort of a mission to make it happen from second to second.”
He notes that dialogue was important but not so much what is said as what the characters do not say. “We were very attentive to what is happening around us on the set and in the script,” he says. “We were trying to listen very carefully to what the characters are saying, but even more to what they’re not saying because our main character doesn’t talk in this film.”
Visual presentation was also important. As these characters are trying to defend different points of view, the filmmakers came to a smart decision in how to present them visually in the space. “Our first important decision was not to take a master shot in this film,” reveals Elkabetz. “We didn’t take a director’s shot, which describes the whole picture. We said we’re only going to place the camera where the characters are sitting, meaning we’re only going to see what somebody sees, so the whole film is basically shot from the different points of views from the characters in the court, meaning you’re always in a subjective place and you change your stance from one minute to another or one second to another, and by that we hope that we will have the ability to stretch the room because the minute you change the point of view, you change your opinion, and we change the whole atmosphere, and we change the whole essence of one moment, adding to it many different complexities and adding a sort of tension. The tension between the characters could be transferred from what they see and how we think they are interpreting what they are experiencing.”
The key to capturing the drama of varying perspectives, especially those in an intimate life together like a marriage, is subjectivity, not objectivity. “We hope by eliminating objectivity, we create a more truthful, a more suspenseful moment for each one of the characters and eventually for the whole situation,” notes Elkabetz.
The filmmaker adds that he and his sister had doubts they could pull this off, but they allowed that to challenge them. “We went into this film with a lot of good fear, I would say, because we had all these questions like would it be possible to stay in this room for an hour and a half and could we hold the story and still engage people, and if they’re not engaged, we can’t make them think about it.”
He again brings up the importance of subjectivity, not only in the characters of the film, but also acknowledging that every audience member in a movie house brings their own baggage to a film. There is always a subjective view outside, looking in. “We can’t make them be involved,” says Elkabetz of the audience. “We want people to be intellectual about it, and we want people to be emotional about it. We want the cinema to turn into a court where each one of the spectators that are coming to the cinema are taking a stand from a very internal point of view, so in general that was our idea for the shoot.”
Putting the film together in editing was another element. Early in the shooting process, the sibling filmmakers knew they had to test out their approach in the editing room. “What we did was we shot three days in the manner that we wanted to shoot, and we went into the editing room, and we edited one scene to see if the method of shooting that we want to do is working, and we were very pleased with what we saw. We didn’t understand completely what we saw, but it worked. It was suspenseful, and it was personal, and it was global, and it was public.”
In the end, they also had an array of perspectives to put together in a certain way, which was its own challenge. “We shot over 110 hours, and the film has over 1,300 cuts,” he says. “Just in the span of over seven days we shot 40 hours, and we have 60 cuts in the film, so there is this thing that we had to discover ever day when we came to the set and we really tried to pay attention to. I mean, we loved what we saw, and we hoped that it would work as a whole, also. I think it’s hard for every filmmaker. You have an idea, but the final results is almost a mystery, so combining everything together to see how it works as a whole is something that nobody has the answers for, of course. If we did, all films would be amazing and great, but the question is investigating the moment and pinpointing the crucial moments for certain circumstances.”
Even when watching this film alone at home, in preparation for an introduction of the movie during the Miami Jewish Film Festival, this writer could tell there were moments that the subjectivity of the audience had been so powerfully harnessed, that you could feel the moments when the audience might react to the images. Elkabetz admits he and his sister knew they created a potent film, but they could have never anticipated the reaction they witnessed at Cannes when the film premiered at the director’s fortnight. He says people were shouting at the screen. “In the moment when they are asking Elisha, ‘Are you going to give her a divorce?’ not only in the end, but throughout the film, people are saying, ‘Yeah, give it to her, give it to her!’”
As Gett went on a tour of film festivals, Elkabetz witnessed an array of reactions at different points of the movie. “People are laughing and people are reacting in various different moments,” he says. “For me, the only experience that is like it is a moment when I was a kid, when I used to go to the cinema with my dad, and people were very noisy. They speak to the screen, they speak to the characters, and it’s an experience. In my other film, 7 Days, people laughed a lot, but this film, there is something else that makes the audience really active, in many ways, so throughout the film, there’s a lot of clapping, there’s a lot of laughing. We expected the reaction, but we didn’t know the reaction was going to be … so intense.”
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You can read more of my interview with Shlomi Elkabetz in the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist” by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world:
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Images in this article are all courtesy of Music Box Films, except where noted.