Studying Violence: The Films of Avi Mograbi

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October 24, 2009

Chances are that you have never seen anything quite like Avi Mograbi’s films. Mograbi, one of Israel’s most controversial filmmakers, and arguably the most innovative one, uses his “documentaries” to ask difficult questions not only about Israeli society and politics, but also about documentary filmmaking itself. In the six films he has made thus far, Mograbi weaves together documentary sequences and hilarious dramatized scenes, in an attempt to shed light on the nature of the “reality” documentary films bring to the screen and the way that reality implicates filmmaking and, indeed, the filmmaker himself.

Courtesy of Avi Mograbi

Avi Mograbi, in his award-winning film, August (2002)

Mograbi’s primary concern is violence. No longer is it possible to believe, he contends, that the violence that characterizes the interaction of Palestinians and Israeli Jews is limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, violence shapes and molds Israeli society and public life as a whole. In fact, for Mograbi, this violence lies at the very heart of the Zionist endeavor in Palestine. The violence that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply its latest manifestation.

Mograbi’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (2005) is probably the director’s most sustained filmic argument on the topic. Mograbi juxtaposes footage that depicts the present experience of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories with sequences that follow guided tours of the ruins of Herod’s fortress in Masada. At the fort, the tour guides relate to their audience—mostly Diaspora school kids—two prominent Zionist narratives, of the fall of Masada and of the biblical Samson. The Israeli guides glorify the last acts of the zealots who occupied Masada during the first Jewish-Roman War (66-73). To avoid falling into the hands of the Romans, they killed each other, the last one committing suicide. They similarly glorify the acts of Samson, who after his capture and blinding, fell a temple onto a multitude of celebrating Philistines. The guides then move on to use the two stories to celebrate the buildup of Jewish military force and its employment in pre-state Palestine, and then in the State of Israel. What they nevertheless fail to see, as the footage taken at the Occupied Territories show, are the similarities of these stories to the current resistance strategies of Palestinians and, distressingly, to suicide bombers.

Mograbi, however, does not stop here, because in his films he also performs a kind of a “self-analysis” on the effect of violence on himself and on his films. Indeed, Mograbi seeks to lay bare the bad faith involved in the making of documentaries, their good intentions or admirable politics notwithstanding. Documentaries, Mograbi suggests, build upon fiction, deemed necessary in order to show reality. Under the guise of objectivity, documentary filmmakers turn their cameras exclusively on their subject matter, failing to interrogate the most crucial aspect of the reality they show, namely, themselves. No matter how engaged filmmakers feel and how much they empathize, even identify with their subjects, rarely do they acknowledge that they are implicated in the process of making a film. Mograbi, on the contrary, insists that the process of making a documentary is one of the crucial, if not the most crucial aspect of the reality depicted and that, therefore, the process should be included in the documentary. Consequently, all of his films are by and large about the process of making them and, in fact, about Mograbi’s own difficulties and struggles in dealing with his theme of choice.

Most importantly, Mograbi points out that a filmmaker cannot explore violence without becoming subjected to the very same violence, as its victim or, more probably, as its perpetrator. After all, a man with a camera occupies a privileged position in our culture, and Mograbi makes the most out of this position. He accentuates the aggression that is involved in filmmaking, and repeatedly shows himself, a camera in hand, in violent altercations with the people whom he seeks to shoot, pushing and shoving, pushed and shoved. At times it seems that Mograbi elicits the most aggressive reactions, both from the people who happen, incidentally or not, to enter his frame as well as from himself, when he insists upon his right to shoot in public spaces. The very presence of his camera thus exposes not only the violence that is played “in front” of it, but also the violence that is directed both from and at the camera.

Much of Mograbi’s cinema is, in fact, about his performance as a filmmaker; quite surprisingly, given the fact that the genre in which he works is “documentary,” this performance takes the guide of film acting. In many of his films Mograbi incorporates sequences in which he himself performs in front of the camera scenes that purportedly reenact the ways the filmmaker is drawn into his own movies, becoming just one more of its subjects. These sequences are staged in such an ironic manner, that it is never quite clear whether they are intended to reveal something about the filmmaker or, on the contrary, to conceal him precisely at the very moments in which he seems most exposed.

The final scene of Mograbi’s second full-length film, How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon (1997) is a good example. In the film, Mograbi follows the 1996 campaign of Ariel Sharon on behalf of the Likud party and its candidate for Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Both Sharon and the filmmaker seem initially uneasy about their filmic collaboration. Sharon is hesitant to expose his political maneuvers to someone who may be unsympathetic, and Mograbi cannot but feel apprehension in the face of the politician most despised and feared in the circles to which he belongs. Indeed, Mograbi tells his viewers, in 1982 he was put in prison for refusing to serve in the first Lebanon war, for which Sharon was largely held responsible. But Sharon finally consents to allow Mograbi to shadow him, and the filmmaker finds himself in the midst of a number of intimate moments with the politician. To his growing anxiety, he discovers that slowly but surely he falls under Sharon’s infamous charm, and cannot avoid but feeling empathy towards him. At the end of the film, Mograbi arrives at a rally organized by Chabad. Sharon fails to show up, and so does the general public. To fire things up, the organizers put on stage a religious-orthodox rock singer, and the filmmaker, captured by the music and by Sharon’s personality, begins to dance in trance-like-state to its rhythm. Or is he indeed entranced? The dance is so frantic—akin to the dance of the possessed—that it may indicate the exact opposite: a commentary on the trance-like hold Sharon has over the Israeli psyche, a hold the filmmaker seeks to undercut it by enacting its most grotesque aspects.

A repeated device Mograbi employs is that of a staged interior scene. The setting of these scenes is always the same: his study or living room. The filmmaker sits close to the camera, in such proximity as to raise discomfort in viewers. He then delivers soliloquies that describe how his private life is impacted and disintegrated by the process of making the film. Often he plays Tami, his wife and alter ego, who voices grave concerns about his approach to films; time and again she warns him—so he contends—from being drawn into them and about the moral consequences of what he does. But the director cannot resist the pull of his subjects, with comically-disastrous effects.

In August (2002), Mograbi seeks to depict Israeli society during the hottest month of the year, alongside his search for an actress that would portray the widow of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli American doctor who carried out the 1994 massacre in Hebron. In staged scenes, Mograbi’s frame is “invaded” by his wife, who first encourages him to make the movie and then is dismayed at the outcome, and by a producer who is enraged by Mograbi’s failure to deliver a promised film, and so settle down in Mograbi’s house. The heat and violence of the Israeli August turn the mutual hostility of the wife and the producer into attraction that results in a steamy sex scene in front of the camera. Since Mograbi plays all parties involved, this is, in effect, an act of love that turns into self-violation, both performed and watched by the filmmaker.

Likewise, in Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi (1999), the film invades the privacy of the filmmaker’s home. Mograbi is hired to make a film about the celebrations surrounding Israel’s 50th anniversary, but he is uncertain what approach would best suit this subject matter. At the same time, he is asked to make a film about the 50th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (the catastrophe). As in his other films, Mograbi employs dramatized/dramatic sequences to present his private life. This time the personal story revolves around his 42nd birthday, which falls on the same day as the planned Independence Day celebrations, and on his desire to get some land, build a house and fulfill his Israeli dream. These plans are frustrated when questions of ownership lead to violent clashes between neighbors. The filmmaker’s mishandling of the three situations lead his wife to leave him, and as the film ends against the backdrop of Mograbi’s television, showing Israelis celebrating and Palestinian protesters, Mograbi sits alone at home, struggling to finish his three parallel stories.

The dramatized sequences in Mograbi’s film are designed to contravene and counteract the tendency of viewers to look for characters with which they could all-too-easily identify, or which they could easily censure. In engaged films, the filmmaker often serves as a primary figure of identification, as the audience is drawn to admire their courage, honesty and integrity. Mograbi works hard to undercut this tendency. Following the lead of Bertholt Brecht’s dramaturgy, he seeks to establish a critical distance between the film and its viewers, a distance that would force viewers to critically examine and evaluate not only what they see on the screen, but themselves. In enacting the way the filmmaker himself becomes subjected to the forces explored in the film, Mograbi points out that viewers are likewise subjected to these very same forces. Viewers cannot, then, leave the screening with a self-satisfaction that in watching the film they have done good. On the contrary, they have to recognize that notwithstanding their political convictions and activity (assuming they share Mograbi’s outrage at what he sees), they are not exempted from the corruption of violence. Indeed, like Mograbi, they form part of the problem. They (we!) are all implicated.

Mograbi’s most recent film, Z32, fully develops the themes that have preoccupied the director in his previous productions. In this “musical-documentary-tragedy,” as the filmmaker dubs it, an Israeli ex-soldier who participated in a revenge operation where several innocent Palestinians were murdered seeks forgiveness for what he has done. His chief interlocutor in this quest is his girlfriend, and the film centers on their long conversations in which he does not merely relate and retell the incident, but also seeks to bring her to tell his story. Indeed, his present remorse and repentance appear sincere enough. Yet, hard as he endeavors to explain what led him to take part in that operation without questioning and without moral compunctions, she remains bemused and perplexed in the face of a reality she cannot imagine, refusing to grant him absolution for his crime.

Z32, however, is not merely a film about the urge of a criminal to confess. Nor is it about the difficulty of comprehending a crime and granting forgiveness. As noted, Mograbi’s interest lies not merely in relating a story to illuminate the subject matter of his choice—which in this case would merely allow the soldier to duplicate his narrative once more. Rather, he is also looking to explore the implications for such a story for himself, and for filmmaking.

In fear of revenge and of legal censure, the soldier agrees to appear on film only if his identity is be concealed. To accommodate him, Mograbi experiments with different approaches, from showing sections of the faces of the soldier and his girlfriends, blurring them while leaving the rest of their bodies unchanged, to using 3-D animation to mask their faces. The effect of these devices is troubling, conceptually and visually (much more than the familiar devices of covering the eyes or showing merely the silhouettes of interviewees). Mograbi’s frame is marked, for the full duration of the film, with a blurred area that makes it difficult to focus one’s gaze; it is an area that demands detail, yet resists any decipherment.

At the same time, Z32 also presents familiar plot devices from Mograbi’s earlier films. Once again the director voices his wife who argues, so he says, that when the director helps the soldier to conceal his identity rather than hand him over to an international war cimes tribunal, that Mograbi implicates himself in the soldier’s crime. The filmmaker does not disagree with her, and indeed ruminates out loud on the tendency of documentaries in general to conceal their subject matter at the very moment they claim to expose it. Such a realization is particularly troubling in this case, since Mograbi has to admit that his film actively takes part in concealing the murderous violence it seeks to bring to light. At the same time, Mograbi finds himself compelled by the soldier’s story, by the soldier’s apparently sincere endeavors to understand his past actions, and by the filmmaker’s own fascination with the process of making a film on such a subject.

Yet Mograbi also shapes the device anew. To ensure a critical distance from these questions and to allow viewers the distance necessary to objectively consider these questions, the filmmaker takes one more radical step, setting his comments to cabaret-like music, which he himself then performs in the living room of his home with the accompaniment of a small ensemble. Z32 then cuts between interviews with the soldier and his girlfriend, and musical numbers. More than any of Mograbi’s other films, the result is something akin to the theater pieces of Brecht and his musical collaborator, Kurt Weill.

In Z32, Avi Mograbi succeeds in answering the question that has haunted him, beginning with his very first film: What does it mean to make engaged cinema? His answer is disturbing and uneasy: He is pessimistic about its value. A filmmaker, he suggests, cannot help but duplicate the very regime of vision he seeks to undo in his films. This is, arguably, Mograbi’s unique and crucial contribution to one’s understanding of cinema, a lesson that transcends the director’s more immediate preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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