Director, Avi Mograbi makes films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – its public and hidden facets; the things that one sees, and the moments from which many may prefer to look the other way. Throughout several decades, and spanning a formidable oeuvre of documentaries, Mograbi has crafted a distinctively unique language which, over time, has become his trademark, and a source of inspiration for scores of Israeli and international filmmakers. Mograbi’s cinematic language frequently traverses the documentary and fiction boundary lines as it relentlessly explores and questions the director’s place and ability to portray reality based on the choices he makes, whilst all throughout, maintaining full awareness of his position in the occupation’s hierarchical structures, and the part that he plays in his own films.
In his body of work, Mograbi both explores and challenges the concept of ‘truth’ in documentary filmmaking. Exactly what is ‘the truth’? Who is its narrator, and in whose eyes is it considered as such? Does such a truth even exist? And is the content that we watch on the news synonymous with the truth? After all, what is seen in Mograbi’s films does not feature anywhere in the media, which then begs the question – where does the truth lie, then? And does it have any substantial bearing on the reality of our lives here in Israel that is already predominantly distorted and misrepresented across the board?
The onscreen persona that Mograbi has created for himself in his films, and each film’s narrative framework all correspond with the film’s subjects in a way that prompts viewers to rethink the social, political, and security reality in our region. The limitations of documenting reality, and the inherent relativity of truth that underscores any such documentation have led Mograbi to create a language that thrives in those gaps between fact and fiction. The act of self-documentation distances Mograbi from the position of the so-called objective, ever-watchful director; the one who, allegedly, pertains to capture and portray reality ‘as is.’ Many a filmmaker have played a pivotal role in their own works; and yet, there is something truly extraordinary in the way that Mograbi chooses to accompany his films through the use of his own persona in multiple scripted sequences that correspond with documentary footage and stories from Israel and the Occupied Territories.
One such instance is the scene where Mograbi recounts the collapse of his marriage that came on the heels of his then-newfound affection for late Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, whom Mograbi had been documenting in his film, How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon. Another example is the opportunity that Mograbi was given by Israeli and Palestinian film producers, respectively, to direct both Independence Day and Nakba films in Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi, and the inevitable parallels between the two. Then there are the phone calls with the Palestinian friend in Avenge but One of my Two Eyes, and the multiple characters in August: A Moment Before the Eruption (where, time and again, he clashes with protesting civilians, as well police officers and soldiers who challenge his right to film and document events – which he, being fully aware of his civil rights, will fight tooth and nail for.)
And so, Mograbi navigates between the onscreen persona he has assumed as a documentary filmmaker who’s undertaken to capture all the misdeeds and injustices, and those fleeting, painfully human moments of that hopeless, impossible battle with Israeli soldiers and field officers’ every whim, e.g. making a local man stand on a rock for hours on end for having had “the audacity” to turn his head and look back; or stopping a bleeding woman from going to hospital. Mograbi is there to document, on the merit of his inalienable rights as an Israeli citizen who has the power to confront those soldiers who are trying to stop him filming. These power dynamics are portrayed in his films as a means of emphasising the over-privilege of those who can speak up and do, but who are nevertheless every bit as complicit in current Israeli power structures. In this gap between reality and fiction, and the interplay between the two, the filmgoer’s otherwise passive viewing is undermined and a different mode of listening, observing, and thinking is demanded of them. Under these conditions, film is remade into a sphere where many an insight emerge, and the occupier’s true colours come through.
As said, Mograbi’s act of documenting has influenced generations of filmmakers who owe him for having liberated them from the shackles of representation and consciousness and legitimised having their own personal commentary on their depicted realities. The time that has passed since Mograbi took his first steps in filmmaking gives one newfound perspective, whilst also posing questions about the things one would have been able to film then versus now, and also what we might have seen back then but are no longer shown. Binge-watching Mograbi’s films becomes a retrospective of sorts about the occupation and one’s perspective of it; a point of view that, nowadays, has all but gone extinct. Critical discussions of the occupation have vanished completely from public discourse, and even the word ‘occupation’, itself, has been on the receiving end of a longstanding delegitimisation campaign.
In this collection, I have chosen to focus on the following films: The Reconstruction, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi, How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon, August: A Moment Before the Eruption, Avenge but One of my Two Eyes, and Z32. These films share a rich cinematic language whose seeds were principally sown in The Reconstruction, Mograbi’s directorial debut, and later turned to fruit in his subsequent offerings: