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In Israeli Divorce, "The Man Has All the Power"

Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz discuss their critically acclaimed film.

Courtesy of Music Box Films

Israeli movie director Shlomi Elkabetz says thinking about politics is “a recipe for a bad film.” It’s a testament, then, to the power of his new film, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, that it has become a political sensation in Israel, forcing policy-makers to talk about the ancient law that gives men the upper hand in divorce trials. According to traditional Jewish law—which still governs all Jewish marriages in Israel—a marriage can only be dissolved by a court of rabbis, and a woman can’t get a divorce until her husband gives his full consent by signing over a gett. Elkabetz's film, which he directed with his sister Ronit (who also stars as the title character), follows one woman’s exhausting multi-year quest to obtain a gett from her stubborn husband.

Viviane, we learn, was born into a religious family and engaged to the pious Elisha as a teenager. Twenty years later, they’re barely on speaking terms, and Viviane, no longer religious, wants her independence. Yet Elisha can’t accept that their marriage is over. He begs her to come back. He refuses to show up in court. And no matter how poorly Elisha behaves, the burden is always on Viviane—to prove that she’s tried to make her marriage work and to convince the rabbis that they must in turn persuade her husband to grant her a gett.

Gett, which is the final installment of the Elkabetzes’ trilogy about Viviane, was nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the Golden Globes and selected as Israel’s entry at the Oscars.

I met the Elkabetzes on Monday at the Regency Hotel. Like the characters in the film, they abruptly switch back and forth between different languages. Ronit speaks sometimes through a Hebrew translator; other times, she responds directly in English. Her English is peppered with French. She wears a floor-length dress and several gold necklaces; despite the fact that we’re inside, she periodically puts on, and takes off, a pair of sunglasses. Shlomi picks at a packet of American Spirit tobacco as the conversation gets going.

Alice Robb: Have you been surprised by the response you’ve gotten?

Ronit Elkabetz: Yes and no. We knew we had something very powerful. We were hoping no one would get to it cinematically before us. When it came out, it was like a big bang. It spread like fire. It went everywhere within a couple of days, in every possible sector—the political, the social, the street, men, women. The film came out in September; it’s been the hottest topic in every newspaper, up until now.

Shlomi Elkabetz: We get offers to speak on a daily basis. We can never fulfill them all.

RE: One of the biggest achievements is that this year, the annual rabbinical convention of courts is going to screen the film, to dozens of judges who’ve never seen a film in their life. This is the first film they’re going to see. It’s a huge thing. We didn’t expect something like this.

AR: How did the two of you end up working together?

RE: I always knew I wanted to work with my brother. I was just waiting for him to grow up a bit. We both were writing screenplays.

What we went through writing, it was very personal. It was sort of a therapeutic, cinematic encounter, very powerful. We went through our dreams and our aspirations. We spent three weeks, 20 hours a day, just writing the script, vomiting the first one out. We realized we were going on this new path together. We realized we had years ahead of us together, three movies, to get into and understand this woman’s status and position within her family and community.

SE: We are extremely close. We love spending time together and we share a very similar point of view. The first film [To Take a Wife] is closer to our lives. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s a very personal point of view on our mother’s life. Whereas Gett—our mother never set foot in court.

AR: Do you think that she might have wanted to?

RE: It’s a very hard question.

SE: This is like an imaginary biography of her. She wanted to have a better life. She was a very feminist and very progressive woman. She’d go out from home for a few months, but she was back very quickly because she wanted so much to have the family together.

AR: Were your parents religious?

SE: Ultra-Orthodox on one side, very traditional on the other.

RE: But we were given liberty to do what we wanted.

SE: Maybe our father expected us to be more religious, but he never forced us.

The character of Viviane, or our mother, or however you want to look at it—she’s a very progressive character. She’s never stuck. She’s breathing the atmosphere of the time, and she changes with it. She really represents something that is current, the spirit of the time and the place that we live in, Israel.

AR: On the other hand, you have the character of Elisha. Why is he so desperate to hang on to someone who doesn’t want to be with him? Is it spite?

RE: He loves her. He doesn’t want to lose her. All the power is in his hands—it’s very difficult for men to lose the power that they have. For women, I think it’s easier. He doesn’t hit her. He is a loyal husband. He’s a good father. He gives her money from his salary. Everything is fine. The real tragedy is the status of the woman: In front of the Rabbinical Jewish law, a woman has no power. The man has all the power.

AR: I was also curious about how you did research about what happens in these courts, since no one is allowed into them.

SE: We spent a lot of time sitting in the corridors of these courts. The walls are very thin—you can hear. We studied all the laws and then we took this story, this couple that we know so well, and put their problem into the Israeli law system. We did give the script to different lawyers and to a judge to look it over, to give us marks, but the corrections they gave were few. The story is very simple. We didn’t deal with a story about custody and kids or Viviane wanting the house. She just wants to be free.

AR: Most of the characters speak a mixture of French, Hebrew, and Arabic. How did you decide which language would be spoken at any moment?

SE: It’s a society of immigrants, Israeli society. All languages are mélanged, one into the other, in daily life. Hebrew is the main language, but you can hear all other languages. In Gett we have very different types of Hebrew also. We have Biblical Hebrew, which is used only when you study the Talmud; we have the court’s Hebrew; street Hebrew; immigrant Hebrew.

AR: Am I right in remembering that the rabbis are Ashkenazi while most of the other characters are Mizrahi? Is ethnicity important to the story?

SE: In the film, there are two Ashkenazi judges and one Mizrahi judge. You could look at it as a metaphor—the Mizrahi being judged by Askhenaz—but this is only one part of the story. It’s the story of all women—women who come from Europe or Arab countries or America. It’s a global problem. Jewish women in America who want to remarry within the Jewish community face the same problem.

AR: Did you think about this, going into it, more from a political standpoint or as a piece of cinema, a work of art?

SE: When we make a film, we make a film. We tell a story. We think about characters. We think about where the camera’s going to be. We don’t think about politics; that’s just a recipe for a bad film. It’s a great thing if it makes the crossover from a cultural event into a political event, but it’s not the other way around.