Incitement: the film about the man who murdered the Israeli peace process

The makers of a controversial new film about the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin describe their conversations with the killer, Yigal Amir

‘The murder of an Israeli prime minister by an Orthodox Jew was inconceivable,” says American-Israeli film-maker Yaron Zilberman. “For anyone who was pro-peace, it was beyond anything that we could fathom.” The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by the religious ultra-nationalist law student Yigal Amir, at a peace rally on 4 November 1995, was one of the most traumatic events in Israel’s history. Rabin’s death buried the prospect of peace, further divided an already riven society and left an indelible mark on Israel’s politics.

Although the assassination has been the focus of many documentaries, Incitement is the first narrative feature to take on the subject. Directed by Zilberman and co-written with Ron Leshem (Beaufort, Euphoria), it chronicles the events in the year preceding the assassination from Amir’s point of view, and examines the political, religious and personal forces that influenced and motivated him. Extensive archival footage which is, at times, almost seamlessly intercut with reconstructed scenes, relays the progress of the Oslo accords and the violent protests against them, and gives perspective to Israeli politics and society at that time.

‘I want the audience to understand’ … director Yaron Zilberman.
‘I want the audience to understand’ … director Yaron Zilberman. Photograph: TCD/Prod DB/Alamy Stock Photo

The title refers to many incitements. It shows that Amir, who opposed the accords, was not a loner but sought religious justification and felt emboldened by radical right-wing rabbis. But personal and psychological elements were at play too, including his narcissistic fantasies about being a religious saviour, ethnic and class discrimination, and a mother who believed he was destined for greatness.

The film has not been without controversy. Following its world premiere at the Toronto film festival, Incitement won best picture at the Ophir awards – Israel’s Oscars – and, as a result, will now be Israel’s official 2020 submission to the Academy awards. In response, Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev claimed that the film – which received no state funding – maligned current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu by suggesting he played a part in the incitement, through its footage of him speaking at a right-wing rally where protesters branded Rabin a “traitor”, a “murderer” and a “Nazi” for having signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The accusation is not new. Netanyahu was head of the Likud party, then in opposition, and he has been repeatedly accused of stoking up hatred and ignoring the inflammatory rhetoric that characterised the political atmosphere leading up to his rival Rabin’s murder.

Speaking on the phone from Tel Aviv, Zilberman says he had wanted to make a film about Rabin’s murder for more than 20 years. “For me, it has always been a big wound. But there’s something about how it’s remembered by the nation…” he says, expressing concern that the memory, meaning and significance have somehow been lost. His hope is that Incitement will change the perception of the circumstances surrounding the events. The factors leading to the assassination were not fully investigated at the time, he says, perhaps to avoid a civil war between religious and secular Jews.

The Israeli prime minister Yitzahk Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shake hands for the first time (watched by Bill Clinton) after signing the historic Oslo peace accords in 1993.
The Israeli prime minister Yitzahk Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shake hands for the first time (watched by Bill Clinton) after signing the historic Oslo peace accords in 1993. Photograph: J David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

Putting Amir at the centre of the narrative risks audiences feeling compassion for him but Zilberman is clear that this was not his aim. “I want the audience to understand how come a person, like Yigal Amir, became a political assassin. Yes, I let him speak but [viewers] hear all the logic, [from all sides] and see that it leads to a murder.”

The film-makers say they wanted to convey the truth of what happened, to challenge the conspiracy theories that have proliferated since Rabin’s death. “I felt we needed to write this story as is and leave it on a history shelf because, in some parts of Israeli society, people don’t believe that Amir killed Rabin. Or some believe he did, but that he was sent by the left,” says Leshem.

The film took nearly four years of rigorous research. The film-makers gained access to unpublished psychiatric evaluations of Amir, as well as interviews with the head of the security services and the police investigators, and meetings with Amir’s friends, family and his wife, Larisa Trembovler, and – most remarkably – over 100 hours of telephone conversations with Amir himself, from prison. “Our goal was to get the cooperation of the family,” says journalist Amihai Attali, one of the two researchers. As a former correspondent who had covered the West Bank and the Israeli settlements, he was well placed to approach them, he says. “But no one dreamed that I would talk to Amir personally.”

The opportunity came via Trembovler. She enabled Attali to make lengthy calls with Amir, using her home phone, two or three times a week, an hour or two at a time. “The first time I spoke to him, I didn’t believe it had happened. But like anything,” he says, “you get used to things.”

Amir is serving a life sentence and has little direct contact with anyone in prison or outside. As a result, he dived into their conversations, says Attali. “He needs to talk to someone, to tell his story and his ideas. He really thinks that he stopped the Oslo process and believes that it would never have happened without him.” But also, by participating in the project, Amir hoped to improve his reputation. “For most people in Israel, he is the worst person in the world, and so he does whatever he can to [alter this].”

Watch a clip of Incitement.

In his meetings with the family, Attali says he tried to be as non-judgmental as possible. “I didn’t talk with them about whether the assassination was a good thing to have done or not. My mission was to bring the family’s story, not to talk about politics.” Attali says that their conversations did not reveal any information not already disclosed, but details did end up in the film. For example, Amir told a story about when he, his brother Haggai and a friend of theirs, Dror Adani, decided to test a rabbi, Benny Alon, to see if he would join them as their spiritual leader. Amir organised a Shabbat retreat and invited Alon and, during the synagogue service, Amir gave a D’var Torah – a talk on a topic related to the weekly section of the Torah – in which he intimated that someone should kill Rabin, in order to see if Alon’s interest was piqued. In the event, Attali says, Alon did not take the bait.

Yehuda Nahari Halevi gives a compelling performance as Amir, and portrays the assassin’s radicalisation and fanatical, delusional behaviour with chilling conviction. By coincidence, he is from Neve Amal, the same neighbourhood as Amir, and knew members of Amir’s family, though not the killer himself. Like Amir, he comes from an Orthodox Yemenite family. “Because I used to be religious, I have the tools – the mannerisms, body language and the accent. It helped me a lot. But,” he says, “it’s the opposite of who I am now.”

Almost 25 years have passed since the murder, yet its legacy is still fully present. “Some of the people who were shouting ‘Death to the PM’ are now sitting as ministers in our parliament,” says Leshem. “You see crazy things now,” Zilberman says, “such as Netanyahu trying to close electoral deals to get the support of the extreme religious right, who were [in 1995] at the forefront of the incitement.”

At the time of writing, the outcome of Israel’s recent election is yet to be decided. But like many Israelis, Zilberman expresses hope for a change in direction, a leader who “instead of dividing and inciting, can unite us, raising the level of love and not the level of violence”.

• Incitement is screening at the London film festival on 12 and 13 October and at the Jewish film festival on 19 November.

Anne Joseph

The GuardianTramp

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