A press conference with American superstar Harvey Keitel surprisingly turned into a statement of hypocrisy and candid discrimination following a question about the actor’s film “The Last Temptation of the Christ.
Dressed all in black and wearing dark shades, Keitel walked in the Auberge de Nil hall of the Grant Hyatt hotel looking like a rockstar. Festival President Ezzat Abou Ouf introduced him to the few members of the press who managed to attend.
The discussion kicked off with a question from Daily News Egypt on whether the continuous failure of serious dramas in the US and elsewhere is evolving into a new cinematic trend with significant implications on actors and filmmakers like Keitel.
“Trends have been a staple of Hollywood cinema, Keitel said. “Look at the advancement of independent cinema for example. Ten years ago, independent [American] cinema challenged Hollywood and managed to succeed while preserving its independence. Now, it’s become part of the Hollywood system.
“But we’ll still continue to challenge the system, he added. “Independence is the true essence of cinema and nothing can repress it.
A second question by Daily News Egypt on whether a thought-provoking film such as “The Last Temptation of the Christ could be made in our current treacherous political age started a chain-reaction of inquires regarding said film.
“First of all, I’ve never been harassed with ‘Last Temptation’, Keitel said. “The film and Nikos Kazantzakis’ book changed my life in many ways.
The “Taxi Driver, “Pulp Fiction and “The Piano Oscar nominee, who played the role of Judas in the film, added “Kazantzakis was a brave man who dared to raise question no one else dared to ask and, as a consequence, was expelled from the Catholic Church. His book was about finding the divine in all what we do, and that’s the true message behind it.
A TV presenter followed with a question about the way in which Kazantzakis’ book changed the actor’s life.
“When I was a boy, I read the story of Jesus and Judas in the Bible and it didn’t make sense to me, he said. “I mean how could Judas have sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver when, in fact, he came from a rich family?
“I lived with these conventions through my childhood, adolescence and adulthood, he continued. “Kazantzakis’ seminal book, which questioned the authenticity of this story, was a revelation. I learned [from the book] not to take anything for granted, and that you shouldn’t the take everything in the gospel too literally.
Keitel’s answer – which reflected torment that has plighted some Jews over the stereotyping of Judas and his crime – was met with applause from the attendees.
Clearly if Keitel’s remarks had targeted the Torah, he would have been slammed with accusations of anti-Semitism. If Keitel had dared intimate to the the same audience that they should not believe everything written in the Quran, or had defended Salman Rushdie’s equally controversial novel “The Satanic Verses, he would have been called infidel and possibly not been allowed to set foot in the country ever again.
Questions involving “Last Temptation, continued to pour in, with one journalist asking Keitel if he believes that the Catholic Church is curbing freedom of expression and exercising its authority over art works that attack it.
In response, Keitel reiterated his defense of Kazantzakis. “Look, we’re not here to pat each other on the back. We’re here to discuss issues and learn where we’re heading next.
Keitel stated that religions tend to oppose, and sometimes obliterate, any ideas that don’t go along with its dogmas. “I mean I saw how Copts, for example, destroyed the ancient hieroglyphic relics. It’s always been like that.
Keitel’s remarks, yet again, were equally met with warm applause and, in an attempt to continue pleasing the country that’s hosting him, he, out of the blue, started to describe how Muslim children greeted his young son with utter joy and love in one of his trips to an Egyptian island.
Keitel’s flattery continued with a long prose about his fascination with Ancient Egyptian culture. “We [Americans] grew up thinking about the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We only have a 500-year-old history. You, on the other hand, have a 7,000-year-old culture.
“When I stood in front of the Sphinx for the first time, I felt that Egypt is my country as well. I also felt that it’s a metaphor for all of you.
Elsewhere, Keitel, who co-directs the New York Actor’s Studio with Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn, asserted that the famous acting shrine is not a school, but a place for actors to develop their craft. Its membership is free of charge, obtained solely through auditions.
Answering a stock question about the global hegemony of American cinema and why the American film market does not distribute foreign films in the US (note that the US is one of the biggest markets for foreign films), a slightly irritated Keitel explained that “it’s an economic and culture problem.
“Language works against us all the time, that’s just the way it is, he said. “Hollywood is a business and it works, as mentioned earlier, in trends. We often look at ourselves as victims of capitalism and greed. We’re no different than you, we suffer such as much.
“Producers want to make money before the films are even made. That’s the essence of the problem and that’s why a limited number of directors, stars and producers dominate moviemaking in America.
Asked again a similar question about the potential for Egyptian films to penetrate the American market, a worn-out Keitel answered, “It’s not about Egyptian films or Italian films or any country. Our culture doesn’t work out like that. It’s about economy and culture. They [distributors] show the films that make the most money.
As for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking directorial debut “Reservoir Dogs, Keitel asserted that it was difficult for him to accept the role and the film, in general, and that he was taking a big risk.
“A teacher of mine once advised me not to lower my price because once you do; it’s very hard to get it back up again. With ‘Reservoir Dogs’ I had to lower my price and it took me a long time to get it back up.