Avi Mograbi: Reality Creating Language

Edited by Osnat Trabelsi
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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:

Movie clips

The Reconstruction

In The Reconstruction, Avi Mograbi’s debut feature film, he follows five different versions of the reconstruction of Israeli teen, Danny Katz’s grisly murder in 1984. Here, one arguably finds the primary seed of what will later evolve into a fully-formed cinematic language in his future films, and a discussion about the very concept of ‘truth’. Both evil and senseless foolishness are depicted in the five different accounts of the murder that a group of workmen who had been in the area where Katz’s body was found, who may not have even been involved in the crime, and who had just been arrested, are now being made to reconstruct. Detectives appear to have little to no regard for the truth or reasonable doubt as they ask them, over and over again, to repeat everything they had done to the murdered boy, and unflinchingly accept any version of events that includes a confession.
Years later, director Ken Burns would make the documentary, The Central Park Five (2012) about five African American young men who are arrested in New York’s Central Park area where the body of a white woman who had been raped and murdered was just found. Two decades later, the five men were cleared of all charges. Both films echo the virtually boundaryless evil and racism that permeate, but what is even more painstakingly obvious is the glaringly small part that truth plays in the search for the real killer. The immediate suspects have been apprehended and must pay a hefty price. The punishment is of course collective, for every Palestinian in the vicinity is instantly rendered a suspect – and as hundreds of detainees over the years who were denied their right to a fair trial will attest, there is virtually no other way of proving anything to the contrary.

How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon

In the film, How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon, Mograbi weaves a dialogue with his wife about the subject of the film, himself – the late Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon – which he then ties into how the man had impacted the couple’s relationship – all the way to their eventual separation. Mograbi embarked on this film after a decades-long obsession with Sharon – the erstwhile military general who was the architect of the First Lebanon War which had a major impact on the lives of Mograbi and tens of thousands of other Israelis who had taken part in it and never fully recovered – whether physically or emotionally. The same man on whose watch the Sabra and Shatila Massacre took place. That said, in the course of the film, Mograbi’s stance on Sharon ‘evolves,’ and the ‘fonder’ he grows of him and starts to view him as this affable uncle figure, the more his relationship with his wife deteriorates. Mograbi’s cinematic alter ego, who makes his big screen debut in this film, along with the collapse of his marriage (which, later, following the film’s release, turned out to be pure fiction) boldly tore up the rulebook along with the so-called “inalienable truth” that was the staple of so many Israeli documentaries of the time, especially the political ones. It is here that Mograbi’s cinematic language that would underscore all his future films started coming into its own.

Avenge but One of my Two Eyes

In two of his early films, How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi, the director predominantly positions himself as a documenter who does not interfere in any of the events. In Avenge but One of my Two Eyes, his fourth motion picture, Mograbi takes an active stance within the film, lashing out at Israeli soldiers who won’t let Palestinian schoolchildren through a checkpoint, detaining them for hours on end in the blistering heat. Mograbi can’t bear the sight of the children endlessly languishing under the scorching sun, waiting for the gate to finally open so that they can go home, and starts screaming at the soldiers in charge of the checkpoint. This was the scene that gave us the line, “where did you come from? What garbage heap did they pull you out of?!” that would stay with me for years.
On later revisiting the film, it becomes obvious that as an Israeli citizen, Mograbi has the privilege of losing his temper and screaming at the soldiers. He also explicitly tells them how, “you are soldiers in my army!”. He knows full well that he cannot be arrested (at the time, soldiers were not known to go after Israeli protesters). The children and their teachers, meanwhile, stood by in silence, patiently waiting for the border crossing to open, whilst an Israeli citizen armed with a camera was shouting down the soldiers who were stopping them going through – but did his actions have any kind of impact? This scenario raises pertinent questions about the fight against the occupation, and our position as Israelis who oppose it. As the director, Mograbi chose to include this scene in the film. The checkpoint sequence with the children comes on right after Mograbi’s besieged friend in the Palestinian town city of Al-Bireh asks him, “will we ever have a normal life again?”

August: A Moment Before the Eruption

August: A Moment Before the Eruption focuses on the month of August in Israel, whose excruciating heat and humidity have been known to turn people hyperaggressive, fanning the flames of any conflict, however small, to the point of near explosion. This is, for all intents and purposes, a film about violence. Mograbi’s onscreen persona is trifold in this picture: the director who, at the start of the film, makes his statement of purpose; the director’s wife, acting as his conscience and moral compass; and Ronny – a producer who had commissioned Mograbi to make a film about Miriam Goldstein, the widow of domestic terrorist, Baruch Goldstein. These three characters dialogue amongst themselves and to that end, Mograbi employs the split screen technique as a way of highlighting everything that is not on camera, i.e. acts of violence that had taken place and were otherwise underplayed if not overlooked by the media, with the most prominent one being the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers perpetrated by Goldstein at the holy Cave of the Patriarchs – a terrorist act that was not met with as widespread or unanimous a condemnation across Israeli society. The scenarios depicted in the film are given the status of a documented reality that is then disturbed by Mograbi’s trademark cinematic language which includes the self-documenting of his onscreen alter ego as he talks to the camera, portraying different characters. Each character has their own part to play, and all correspond with the blisteringly hot August scenes which Mograbi captures in the film – everyday scenarios from Israel and the Occupied Territories where violence lurks and permeates at every corner.

Avenge but One of my Two Eyes

The film, Avenge but One of my Two Eyes is underscored by a series of phone calls Mograbi was having with a friend who was under siege in the Palestinian city of Al-Bireh. The conversations, playing out throughout the whole film, correspond with scenes shot in Masada that follow five field guides as they each recount their own version of the ancient tale of the mountainside siege-turned-mass-suicide (some also include Samson’s story in their version of events.) Suicide emerges as a running theme in these ‘tales of heroism’, and in the phone calls with the director’s Palestinian friend who is losing his will to live under the occupation. Alongside that, Mograbi manages to capture the most excruciating day-to-day scenes and moments from the Territories that reveal the full weight of the burden that is life under the occupation. The phone conversations fit so seamlessly into the scenes they are woven into that it becomes apparent they are at least partially scripted – and yet, the resemblance to real life remains every bit as bone chilling.
Another aspect that reveals itself on revisiting the film is Mograbi’s wife who is present in his works, serving as a moral compass and conscience of sorts. During the phone calls Mograbi has with his Palestinian friend, she is seen pottering round the house, and sitting down to work at her desk that is opposite her husband’s room. Her presence in the background attests to an otherwise normal life at Mograbi’s home which, the more it goes on, only further highlights the impossibly harsh reality his Palestinian friend is currently living through.

August: A Moment Before the Eruption

Mograbi was one of the first documentary filmmakers to have used professional actors in their films. When he first started doing that, by no means was it common practice – least of all, when it came to more ‘serious’ subject matters, e.g. the occupation. In Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi, for instance, the documentary narrative also features fully scripted scenes that help to further highlight the complexity of the story. This was how the audition scene for the part of Miriam Goldstein – Baruch Goldstein’s widow – in August: A Moment Before the Eruption came about. Mograbi auditions a range of actors for the role; each of whom, in turn, tries to get into character and make sense of the widow’s utterly outlandish demand that her dead husband’s weapon be returned to her, claiming that it is now her legal property. This scene also stands out as one of several scenarios which Mograbi has been known to sample from each of his films and then showcase independently, ahead of the film’s commercial release. These details (as they have come to be known) are reclaimed from their natural cinematic habitat and shown at a range of galleries and art houses, removed from the films which they are part of. Did the real Miriam Goldstein actually demand her terrorist husband’s weapon, or is this plot point but a figment of Mograbi’s imagination? I could not locate any substantiative evidence to that effect, however; based on Goldstein’s astonishing petition to be legally recognised as a victim of terrorism, her alleged demand to be reunited with the murder weapon – whether fictionalised or otherwise – does not at all sound farfetched.

How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon

In the closing scene of How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon, following his unsuccessful pursuit of late Prime Minister across the length and breadth of the country, during which Mograbi never got to have a proper sit down with the man and find out what had been weighing on him for decades, and yet somehow still managed to warm to him over time – the director shows up at floundering election rally in Bat Yam, just outside Tel Aviv. A musical group performing at the rally compares Benajamin Netanyahu to the sun with the chant, “Let Bibi rise!” At a certain point, Mograbi joins in on the dancing and singing. He sings the song with the band’s frontman as if it were a duet, and as though he had literally just realised that the gap between all the rightwing activists there and himself is merely an illusion – and is effectively nonexistent, seeing as how Netanyahu’s rise to victory, at this point, is but a foregone conclusion – and faced with the futility of it all, you might as well go ahead and burst into song.


The interplay between real life and fictional characters peaks in Mograbi’s Z32. In the film, the cast is seen wearing digital masks on their faces that keep changing over time – an element borrowed from theatre by Mograbi who utilises the digital medium as a means of relaying his message. The mask’s purpose may be to disguise the narrator’s identity, however; at the same time it also protects them. And the person who gives them that protection is, in fact, the director, by his own admission. Here too, the very concept of ‘truth’ is undermined. Mograbi employs a range of different cinematic manipulations in every film, but in Z32 he opts to expose them all so as to initiate a discussion about the need for concealment. Exactly who is the director hiding, the film asks, and is he in fact aiding and abetting a murderer? The absurdity of the whole situation runs so deep that Mograbi can only find respite from it by articulating his thoughts and doubts in song. He invites a chamber orchestra into his lounge and has them play as he waxes lyrical – in song form – sharing his feelings about the film’s subject.
The act of hiding is also part of the pact between the director and the character, in order to tell the latter’s story. In posing the question in the first place, Mograbi sheds light on the very act itself, and in doing so, facilitates a level of consciousness and recognition that may help one understand the director’s choice, and appreciate the decision to raise the subject and open it up for discussion. In today’s perspective, it is by no means a simple, straightforward act.
The narrative progresses in tandem with the killer soldier’s confession, as he reconstructs (perhaps a nod to Mograbi’s debut film, The Reconstruction, one wonders?) what happened during an isolated incident in one of the West Bank villages where the elite unit of which he was a member went to avenge the killing of six Israeli soldiers. In a process that is both a confession and a plea for forgiveness, the soldier recounts the events that transpired to Mograbi. He does so in several locations: the director’s own living room, out in the field, at the scene of the killing, and in front of his partner who must now grapple with the fact that the man she loves is someone who has consciously and willingly taken a life.
We then return to the character of the director’s wife – the film’s moral compass (a part she also plays in his previous films) who will not have a murderer sit in their own living room. In one scene, Mograbi actually confronts himself: am I harbouring a murderer in my film? He wonders and later, even forgives the soldier after the latter had expressed his remorse. It is a profoundly unsettling, deeply upsetting sequence. What happens to soldiers at war? What is it that enables them to commit such acts and in real time, even boast about them? How many of them end up having a reckoning with themselves, and does their act conclude in the absolution that they ask of us? What the director is in fact asking here is whether he even has the right to offer his main protagonist forgiveness – and in doing so, absolve himself of having harboured a killer. Is the director, essentially, each and every one of us who is accepting and ultimately, forgiving?

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi

In the film, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi, Mograbi recounts the story of the Palestinian Nakba and of Israeli independence through a pair of queries he had received from two producers: one, an Israeli producer keen on making a film ahead of Israel’s Jubilee celebrations, and the other – a Palestinian, interested in commissioning a film about the half centennial anniversary of the Nakba. At the same time, Mograbi also shares with his viewers a predicament he’s found himself in, whereby he had bought a plot of land which he then sold to someone else with the promise that he will have built them a home that will be ready by Independence Day. In the film, Mograbi takes us through the many twists and turns of the convoluting plot; between the construction of the house and the two films in production – and is ultimately unable to keep his promises, failing at every task he had agreed to take on.
At the end of the film, as the Israeli national anthem is sung in the background, performed by veteran Israeli pop singer, Rita whom we see during his confession, Mograbi recalls the moment he could recognise his father in his own image and how deeply unsettling that was for him. Who is this father figure to whom Mograbi is referring? After all, opting for a father’s imagery was no random act. Is this patriarch, in fact, the Jew who had preceded the Muslim, who had been his neighbour over the years and who, now, has been reconceived as an abusive father figure? Or is he the Palestinian who had lived in most parts of the country before being banished from it? The confession then cuts to Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in full swing, complete with toy hammers banging about in the streets and string spray violently and indiscriminately used everywhere by the jovial masses – and from there, over to scenes from the Intifada (Palestinian uprising) that broke out a decade earlier.

Avenge but One of my Two Eyes

The myth of Masada is explored throughout the entirety of the film, Avenge but One of my Two Eyes, through various narratives recounted by field guides and parents who wish to instil a sense of heritage in their children in a myriad of different, creative ways. Some ask their kids, Israeli teens, or Jewish youths visiting from overseas to take on various roles in the mythical tale, or to try and imagine how the women and children who were all about to die had to have felt. Then, there are those who compare the myth of Masada to Israel’s ongoing fight for existence, as they perceive it. It all seems perfectly normal, and thus generations upon generations of young boys and girls continue to be indoctrinated into the glorified myth of a mass suicide pact.
At one point, when parents are heard discussing with their children the community leaders’ decision to die by suicide on the mountain, the mother explains that this [suicide] is not a Jewish act because for Jews, nothing is more sacred than the sanctity of life. From there, Mograbi cuts to a frenzied religious celebration at one of the settlements (or so it would seem) where teens and adults are seen dancing ecstatically and singing, Kahane Lives On [in support of the assassinated hard right fundamentalist rabbi-turned-politician, Meir Kahane]. Mograbi then cuts to a show where the song, Do Remember Me (‘zochreini na’) which features the lyric, ‘avenge but one of my two eyes’ is performed in front of a frenzied, gun-toting young audience. The dissonance could not be any starker or clearer, and it continues to reverberate to this day.

August: A Moment Before the Eruption

What are you filming? Who are you filming this for? Why are you filming?
In his documentaries, Mograbi makes full use of his civil liberties to film in a public place. In his film about Ariel Sharon who will not consent to an on-camera meeting with him, Mograbi essentially hounds the man and continues to pop up literally everywhere – until Sharon eventually yields to the rolling camera. In other, far more common instances, Mograbi and his camera are not welcomed with open arms but rather, with excessive suspicion – whether it be from protesters and fellow civilians, or police and military forces who are trying to limit and control any and all filming. The clashes over one’s right to film in a public place, the subject’s right not to be filmed and mostly, the effort to control the narrative all reach fever pitch in August: A Moment Before the Eruption. It may well be the heat, or perhaps impatience, fear, or overall wariness, but coming at him from all directions – the political right and left, the orthodox and secular, private citizens and public figures (who don’t always have a full grasp of the public element of their status and its implications) – all seem to end up clashing with Mograbi about his inalienable right to be filming. Mograbi, however, is unwavering. And thus, he continues to capture scenes of the violent reality permeating in Israel, and the even more brutal reality in the Occupied Territories.


As an introduction to his films, Mograbi has been known to pick out a certain element from the narrative and highlight it. He has dubbed each of these elements, ‘a detail’, which he usually showcases at an art gallery or as part of an exhibition – that is to say, he co-opts it from the world of film and relocates it to the arts sphere and in doing so, yet again undermines the concept of ‘documentary truth’ in filmmaking. In Detail, one of the few co-opted excerpts to have been given a title, the focus is on a demonstration – set during a funeral procession in the Occupied Territories where the mourners find themselves clashing with Israeli security forces. Mograbi chose to give the detail an animated treatment that lends it the appearance of a painting; a work of art, if you will. The piece, of course, corresponds with various artworks and wartime sketches.

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