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[1] „In the beginning of 2002 there was a raft of suicide bombings [in Israel] that led to this major discussion of ‘the death culture’ in Islam. … I said I didn’t know much about that, but I could easily talk about the death culture of Israel,” Mograbi, in the previously quoted Cineaste interview.

„Your obsessive documentation has gone beyond good taste,” a television producer snarls at the camera in HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. MOGRABI (1999), a semi-documentary by the Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi. In the film, Mograbi plays a fictional director, also called Mograbi, who the producer has hired to make a documentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the Israeli State. This fictional director, like the real one, can’t stop filming, prodding, and instigating. We hear his piqued voice offscreen, whenever he’s admonished to stop the camera (he doesn’t), or assures his interviewees he’ll never use the footage (he does). At first glance, the producer’s quip may then merely reveal the fictional cineaste’s proclivity to exasperate. Yet in a deeper sense, it also points to the real Mograbi’s impassioned raison d’être and his unique approach to cinema.

Spanning nearly forty years, Mograbi’s filmography is indeed obsessive, in the sense that he returns to and works through his preoccupations with consistent urgency. From his first feature, THE RECONSTRUCTION(1983) to his latest, THE FIRST 54 YEARS – AN ABBREVIATED MANUAL FOR MILITARY OCCUPATION (2021), Mograbi has focused on how the Israeli State’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories has installed two parallel realities. Wedged between them, Mograbi’s cinema occupies a particular position. An Israeli subject himself, embedded in his culture and home town of Tel Aviv (though he’s also lived in New York), Mograbi engages Arab friends and Palestinian citizens to abolish the idea of a historical record as one predicated on a unison voice, or vision. Mograbi’s films are always asking, „Whose history, for and without whom?,” pointing us back to the often revisionist nature and utilitarian usage of historical figures and events.

Machiavellian tone

THE FIRST 54 YEARS posits such questions of history making directly. Mograbi appears on camera, guiding us through a recap of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. He addresses the camera in a distinctly Machiavellian tone, as if speaking from within the Israeli State, inducting viewers into a „manual” on territorial occupation. This persona – one that offers to coach viewers in violence and the dispossession of others, and whose veneer often cracks – is accompanied by another narrator who, in the voiceover, highlights historical markers, such as the various Intifadas and the Oslo Accords. Former Israeli soldiers also appear in the archival footage, testifying to atrocities against Palestinians. Gathered by the organization Breaking the Silence, their testimonies bolster the archival videos, fitting Susan Sontag’s prescription that, in our heavily image-mediated world, pictures should be contextualized in order to compel.

Why the film’s Machiavellian tone and Brechtian framing, we might ask? Doesn’t implicating viewers in a collective cynical „we” risk alienating them? Such questions go to the heart of Mograbi’s method, one that foregoes claims and approaches of purely observational cinema, the so-called „fly on the wall,” instead embracing wholeheartedly „the fly in the soup.” Within this method, alienation and the flaunting of norms or taste (as Mograbi’s protagonist complains in HAPPY BIRTHDAY) become ways to counter the idea of a filmmaker as an objective observer.

Mograbi’s tried strategies are to provoke and to sometimes slip into dramedy, a tonal pastiche, or a parodic action, which in turn reveals reality to be fraught and its premise absurd; such estrangement acts as a springboard for the critical approach.

Mograbi’s tried strategies are to provoke and to sometimes slip into dramedy, a tonal pastiche, or a parodic action.

In his feature, AUGUST(2002), for example, Mograbi plays himself, his friend and his wife (wearing a pink turban and offering meddling advice on what kind of film he ought to make). But this light, burlesque tone morphs into more acute observation when Mograbi roams the streets of Tel Aviv, full of heated, agonizing tensions. In one scene, Mograbi films a group of Israeli children who respond to Israeli protestors shouting slogans, „Tel Aviv is Arab,” by unleashing unthinking racist slurs. The camera is still, recoiled, but Mograbi has captured a microcosm whose heat and oppressiveness, feel akin to Camus’s The Stranger, to Meursault’s violent sun.

Offence and provocation can also have a pointed, psychoanalytic connotation. In Mograbi’s Z32(2008) an ex-soldier who trained in an elite squad confesses to feeling, after many months of training, a pent-up desire to kill, and to have participated in a revenge murder of innocent Palestinian policemen. His girlfriend struggles to comprehend his actions and his earlier sense of pride. Asked if she can forgive, to absolve him, she says, „If I tell you the truth, you will be offended.” The idea of offence is thus closely tied to truth-telling and reflection, touching taboo emotions. As in most of Mograbi’s films, this psychodrama also hinges on staged elements; performance, masks, and artifice in general are cathartically charged.

The inseparability of fact and fiction

Mograbi also uses performative, staged, artificial aims, to reveal how, in life, artifice often comes to pass for reality. His initial provocation often sets in motion a mechanism that reveals fact and fiction to be inextricable. This enmeshing encourages viewers to think about reality as a construct, since what we call „real” turns out to be steeped in the collective imaginary. Mograbi short-circuits the ways that this imaginary has been naturalized, and, through a series of estrangements, reveals its artifice (we should perhaps consider that artifice is different from a sham, though in Mograbi’s films the two often nudge dangerously close, particularly when historical complexity gets flattened out, to serve immediate political aims).

In HAPPY BIRTHDAY, whose characters ask what is to be done in the heat of a political moment – their engagement presented by Mograbi with a comic bend, à la Godard (LA CHINOISE comes to mind) – the fictional filmmaker Mograbi ends up at a fête commemorating 50 Years of Israel. At the celebration, costumed waiters serve wild weeds to transport the banquet attendees to a time when Israelis suffered hunger and fed on sorrel, thus creating an „authentic” experience. History here returns as farce, as Marx once said, always vulnerable to a theme-park Disneyfication in the present.

The film exposes repeatedly the treatment of history in ways that divert attention from troubling contradictions at hand, and reduce reality to a binary construct: No heroism but ours; no terrorism but theirs. Mograbi explores this binary imaginary and links the inability to reflect on the common past to the impossibility of envisioning a shared future. In this sense, similarly to THE FIRST 54 YEARS, HAPPY BIRTHDAY is implacable, particularly once Mograbi crosses into the Palestinian Territories. There he meets a fictional producer (played by Daoud Kutab), who’s also making an anniversary film: the 50 years since Nakba, the Palestinian exodus. The two go back to Israel to film Palestinian ruins. When, at the end, Mograbi receives calls from people wishing him a happy birthday – it so happens that the director and Israel’s birthdays coincide that year – the scene isn’t that of a party but of Mograbi alone, at home, listening numbly to the answering machine. The film then cuts to the footage of Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, and to a young protestor, his head bleeding, his lifeless body prostrated on the ground.

We might ask if the film’s satirical elements are justified, given the film’s tragic theme and ending, but I believe this is the wrong question. The two realities jar and clash, more and more with each passing year. If Mograbi’s films are shrill, combative, or scornful, such tone is often a protest against the passivity that defines the international response to the longest occupation in recent history.

In many scenes of his filmography Mograbi gestures at the impossibility of one side fully placing itself in the shoes of the other.

In Mograbi’s most plangent film, AVENGE BUT ONE OF MY EYES (2005), he tours the ruins at the national monument of Masada, where Israeli guides and parents urge the young to picture themselves in the shoes of the Zealots who, unable to vanquish the Romans, committed mass suicide. In one scene, a guide expresses his ardent admiration for Solomon, who’d rather die than surrender. Mograbi drives in his central message insistently: Israelis can’t help but subconsciously recognize the depths of the Palestinians’ self-determination and despair, having experienced it on their own skins. Yet the tour guides deliver their patriotic lessons without critical reflection. Their appeal to emotion, wrapped in an intense nationalism, precludes empathy with the other. To frame such scenes, Mograbi films extensively at checkpoints. In one scene, the camera captures a Palestinian truck driver harassed by a booming voice that drifts through a megaphone from a tall tower. In another, a pregnant Palestinian woman is impeded by an Israeli tank, the soldier shouting over the speaker, „I don’t care! Go away!” while the ambulance driver and doctor are forced to abandon her. In yet another, Mograbi himself screams at Israeli soldiers, „What hole did you crawl out of?!” when the latter prevent Palestinian schoolchildren from crossing at a checkpoint, and from returning home.

Mograbi thus enacts commiseration and outrage, countering the soldiers’ cruelly impassive approach. And yet, Mograbi never lets us forget that he does so as a subject who speaks from within the law’s protection, granted to him by the Israeli State. To this end, in the film he adds a dialogue between himself (on camera) and his Arab friend (off camera and voiced by an actor, to protect his friend’s identity). „Don’t you want to live?” Mograbi keeps asking, while his friend, who has been living under a curfew, in Bethlehem, confesses to have lost his desire to go on – a lament that echoes throughout the film, with the crestfallen refrain, „I am tired of living.” It is one of the many scenes in his filmography when Mograbi gestures at the impossibility of one side fully placing itself in the shoes of the other. But the scene also points back to the striking contrast between the despair brought on by actual circumstances that make life seem futile, and the way in which „death culture of Israel” is implicitly enshrined in some of the biblical and the foundational myths.[1]

Sober and incendiary at the same time

Mograbi engages with contemporary (re)constructions of the past – be it by observing tour guides or crashing patriotic fêtes – always with an eye to the future. AVENGE is dedicated to his son, AUGUST’s most startling part features schoolchildren, AVENGE adolescents and young adults. ONCE I ENTERED THE GARDEN (2012), Mograbi’s most lyrical film to date, also has a child protagonist. Mograbi wrote me by email that the film was born after the Lebanese filmmaker, Akram Zataari, had invited him to participate in a performance „about the possible relations across borders of the enemy states.” The resulting film is permeated by a dreamlike mood, a reverie and archive-fueled journey into the past. Mograbi and his Arabic teacher and friend of thirty years, Ali Al-Azhari, travel to Damascus, where Mograbi’s father once lived, and then to Galilee, where Al-Azhari’s family home had stood, in what is now an Israeli community. The signs around the area warn „stranglers” (a typo in Arabic, meant to read, „strangers”) that entry is forbidden. Al-Azhari’s young daughter, Yasmin, who is half-Israeli half-Arabic, and suffers prejudice in her Israeli school, is frightened by the sign. She seems to have internalized its message. „We’re not allowed to be here,” she whispers, dragging her father away. A minute later, however, she tries obstinately to uproot the sign’s post. The camera’s tenderness towards her, and the friends’ mutual care, make the film more than a sentimental journey circumscribed by the past. Yasmin’s gesture gives her father’s loss a continuity, makes the journey one of hope, in a small yet meaningful way. Yasmin’s memory now holds if not a fully germinated idea of passage, or resistance, then certainly an image, a gesture, a new sense of home.

Viewers would be hard-pressed to find immediate hope, however guarded, in THE FIRST 54 YEARS. Nearly a decade has passed since Mograbi filmed ONCE I ENTERED THE GARDEN. In THE FIRST 54 YEARS, the director once again sits down in front of the camera. But this time, his approach is far less personal. His role of a narrator isn’t filtered through daily occurrences, in which the real and the fictional Mograbi conflate. Instead, the collective address, „we” – with its implication of speaking for the Israeli state, but also of addressing Mograbi’s viewers, both Israeli and international –  is in turns soberly didactic and prodding. As a result, despite Mograbi’s roleplaying as a blasé realpolitik guide, the film’s form is more essayistic than in the director’s previous, voice-driven cinema vérité.

Mograbi’s departure seems to partly signal the rapidly changing status of cinematic images in our highly technologically mediated world. In one profound way, Mograbi’s passionate idea that a camera always alters reality, and that a filmmaker must acknowledge its presence and his subjectivity at all times, has been fully absorbed into mainstream global culture, with the widespread use of cellphone cameras and ceaseless selfies, though hardly ever with the same critical stance. On the other hand, the world has recently been shaken and galvanized by protests, in the midst of the pandemic, incited by cellphone and body-camera footage showing police violence and murder of Black Americans. Such footage reminds us that the stakes couldn’t be higher for documentary filmmaking or for activist and bipartisan documentation, such as the one carried out by Black Lives Matter, or by Breaking the Silence. The latter has been vehemently attacked by populist Israeli politicians, but it has also inspired others internationally to take a stronger stance against the occupation. Tellingly, one such recent voice linked Martin Luther King’s legacy, also key to Black Lives Matter, to speaking out against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, by quoting King when he opposed the Vietnam War, „The time comes when silence is betrayal.” By lending his critical voice and engaging with the Breaking the Silence footage, Mograbi not only circles back to his lifetime’s most urgent cause, but also reminds us that, for him, cinema has always been a way to decry silence and complacency.


Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic who splits her time between São Paulo and New York. She has written for Artforum, The Criterion CollectionFilm CommentFriezeSight & Sound Magazine and other publications.

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