The TV and film writer Ron Leshem has a confession to make: His new film, a taut and distressing psychological thriller about the man who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November, 1995, isn’t really about Israel in 1995.
After all, Incitement which makes its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, comes at a moment in which the sorts of nationalistic, intolerant strains that radicalized the young law student Yigal Amir, and led him to shoot Rabin backstage at a peace rally, appear to be metastasizing across the globe.
“It’s not only the Israeli story at all, it’s about people losing faith in democracy,” Leshem said the other day over the phone from Mexico, where he had gone for a brief pause before the frenzy of TIFF. “It’s this wave of nationalism, and even fascism. And you see this in so many countries, even in Europe today.”
Still, Incitement, co-written and directed by Yaron Zilberman (A Late Quartet), is a damning indictment of Israeli society and its particular inciting elements. It opens in the fall of 1993, as Amir (played by Yehuda Nahari Halevi) skeptically watches a live broadcast of Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat striking a tense peace agreement at the White House. Six months later, when Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein kills 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer, and is beaten to death by survivors, Amir sneaks away from his home – and his father, a Torah scribe who decries the attack – to attend Goldstein’s funeral.
There, he overhears a small group of rabbis discussing biblical justifications for the massacre, as well as for the elimination of Rabin. Over the ensuing months, Amir throws himself into street protests which heat up and boil over, fuelled in part by Palestinian suicide attacks and Israeli political leaders such as (the current prime minister) Benjamin Netanyahu, who is glimpsed in news footage from the time declaring that Rabin cares more for the safety of Palestinians than his own people.
“In blood and fire, we will get rid of Rabin!” demonstrators scream at a rally, as some wave a placard of the prime minister made up in Nazi garb. “Rabin is a traitor!”
Many Israelis were in favour of the Oslo Accords peace treaty, recognizing it as the best hope for the future of both their country and their Palestinian neighbours. “There was huge optimism in the air,” recalled Zilberman, on a separate phone call last week from Tel Aviv.
“It was an unprecedented period, like the breaking of the Berlin Wall, or when you have Nelson Mandela and [F.W.] de Klerk, or Anwar Sadat making peace with [Menachem] Begin, where enemies suddenly make peace. It’s huge, and I think it affected everyone spiritually, and everyone was on a new path of optimism. And this murder – not only did it stop that, but it actually went in reverse.”
Amir is sometimes cited as a cautionary figure in Western politics. Three years ago, when Donald Trump mused that “Second Amendment people” might do something about Hillary Clinton, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned that his rhetoric echoed that of some who incited Amir.
“Good,” says Zilberman, when told this. “In the most direct way, I see incitement everywhere.”
“You know, Donald Trump says something, and then you wait a week or two later, you see something happen. It’s so obvious, connect the dots. He says something about the whole Mexican issue and then you see somebody shooting Jews because they are ‘supporting illegal immigrants.’ It’s so one-to-one that it’s so obvious that you can’t understand why people don’t talk about it more.”
The film’s development began more than five years ago, when Leshem and Zilberman contracted researchers to interview all of the key players, including Amir himself and his family.
But how to craft a film that looks deeply at Amir – at his family, at his friends, at his own dashed dreams and troubles that may have helped spur him on the path to assassin – without making him into something of a hero?
Zilberman says he shot the film in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio – the squarish dimensions of a classic television set – rather than a cinema widescreen 16:9, which Zilberman says brings to mind “the cowboy on the horse, the robber in the car. Here, you are really locked down into the world of the person, into his head.”
He also limited his camera angles, frequently shooting over the shoulder of Amir, or obliquely at him, rather than directly on. Finally, while Zilberman does use music in the film, he refrains from using a melody, which he says tends to confer a heroic element to those it plays under.
Still, he wants the audience to sympathize with Amir – because, otherwise, what’s the point?
“Everybody I spoke to about this project before it happened, we all talked about it like walking in a minefield,” he explains. “You take too many steps in one direction or the other direction, you explode. You really have to walk a very thin line.
"Which means: If the empathy is good empathy, then you fall in love with a murderer – what does that mean? Am I saying that it’s great that he killed Rabin? I think it’s horrific! But if you go too much into, here’s a crazy person who did crazy things, then there’s nothing to learn from it.”
“We see that, by the way, in America with all these crazy lunatics that go out and shoot. There’s always some kind of disregard for who they are – they’re ‘pure evil,’ ‘pure idiots’ – instead of looking for a second. Not because we want to feel for them, but because we want to learn how this happened, and maybe understand certain things.
“For example, maybe these particular people, when they hear a politician’s rhetoric, they take it and they shoot. They do something with it. And we’re going to connect and talk about it seriously, which is what this movie is trying to do. Until you see the connection, you’re avoiding the truth – and by that, exposing us to the next shooter.”
Incitement will have its world premiere Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. (all times ET). It also screens Sept. 9 at 11 a.m. and Sept. 15 at 1:15 p.m.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.