The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin forever changed Israel – and arguably the world. The left-leaning prime minister, elected on a promise of securing peace with Palestine and laying the groundwork for a two-state solution, did not survive long enough to realize his dream. Instead, a radical named Yigal Amir shot him at point-blank range on Nov. 4, 1995, immediately after an enormous rally in support of Rabin’s Labor party.
More shocking than the hit itself was that the gunman was an ultra-nationalist, religious Jew. Now serving a strict lifelong jail sentence, Amir murdered Rabin because he, like thousands of other Israelis, felt the prime minister was selling out their country, making too many concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for mere words and promises.
Despite much being written about the assassination, there had yet to be a film made to recreate the historic event. Yaron Zilberman wanted to change that.
“This is arguably the most traumatic event in the history of the State of Israel,” Zilberman told The CJN over the phone from Israel, where he’s currently shooting a miniseries about the Yom Kippur War. For him, the film “was a way to go back to that period, relive the trauma by trying to deal with it – talk about it.”
Zilberman’s film, Incitement, is seeing its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. It’s a quiet, gritty character study, marked by intimate close-ups and real-life media footage from the early 1990s. Zilberman cleverly interweaves these decades-old talking-head clips of Rabin, a young Benjamin Netanyahu and author David Grossman, among others, debating hot-button political issues on fuzzy TV screens. Amir (played with uncanny likeness by Yehuda Nahari Halevi) digests every televised moment with brewing anger.
“He’s a villain, no doubt about it,” said Zilberman. The story, however, is told entirely from Amir’s point of view. Viewers see his fleeting romance with a religious settler bloom and wither, later hearing the reaction of his parents, Orthodox Yemenites, who blame racism and classism for the failure. They may be right: Amir certainly suffered prejudice throughout his life for the colour of his skin. While Zilberman doesn’t use this to justify his actions, he establishes a deeper character by including it, asking for moments of empathy from an otherwise judgmental audience.
“We decided to write the character as a human being, not as a monster,” said Zilberman. “That decision was a tough decision, but it was the only decision.”
Zilberman hired two researchers to help write the script: a veteran Israeli reporter with connections in the settlements and Israel’s religious world, and an Orthodox Yemenite from Hebron, where Amir often staged protests. One of the researchers spoke to Amir on the phone to confirm a few facts – “Everything that I used was double-checked,” noted Zilberman – ensuring the film feels as close to reality as possible. Amir’s parents co-operated with Zilberman at first, too, before eventually cutting off all contact.
Zilberman expects they, like Amir’s lingering sympathizers, will dislike the film, despite his efforts to tell an even-handed story. To that end, his inclusion of real-life media footage, probably the most exciting and unique aspect of the deeply critical film, was a deliberate choice from the very beginning. In it, rabbis and political radicals shout death chants against Rabin, waving banners of his face covered by a bull’s-eye target and lighting photos of him on fire.
“The more authentic you are, the more powerful the experience,” said Zilberman. Hiring actors to play these characters was never an option. “These things actually happened, and the people involved actually said what they said – the incitement was for real.”