Voices within the Siege: An Interview with Avi Mograbi
by Mitchell Miller
“There is no way you can introduce a camera at a checkpoint,” says Avi Mograbi, crackling over the line from Tel Aviv, “so that the soldiers do not notice it. Sometimes it makes them more polite, maybe they will be a little nicer. The power is in your pocket; you can almost blackmail everyone into behaving better.”
A self-proclaimed “fly-in-the-soup,” Mograbi has produced a distinctive and controversial body of documentary work that draws upon the “crisis structure” approach to character development. Mograbi draws freely upon both the American direct-cinema tradition—seeking out preexisting crises to reveal character - and the “Rouch tradition” of cinéma-vérité—precipitating a crisis in order to test it. When confronting soldiers in the occupied territories he is volcanic, scolding, upbraiding, and confronting. When filming in Israel, he is suddenly quiet and self-effacing, almost as if seeing his country for the first time. This impassioned approach is founded on firmly integrated political and artistic beliefs: “There is no such thing as a transparent camera and I don’t want to be part of the charade that there can be; I am here, and my presence influences what the people I film do.”
Because of calendrical differences between the Hebrew and Western calendars, the New York based Mograbi, born in Tel Aviv on May 12, 1956, occasionally shares a birthday with the Israeli state (May 14, 1948), a coincidence about which he has made a comic documentary, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi. Mograbi has made a career of criticizing and dissecting his birth place. His latest film, Avenge but One of My Two Eyes, is an interesting mix of ancient parable and reportage from the grim fortifications of the West Bank and the desert fortress of Masada. We spend much of the film with the tour guides who work the national monument at Masada, site of the mass suicide of 936 zealots besieged by the Romans. The guides’s somewhat sinister methods of talking about the fanaticism of Palestinian suicide bombers are juxtaposed, without comment, with the much-praised suicides on Masada and the murder-suicide instigated by the popular Biblical figure Samson, whose last appeal to his God (when besieged by Philistines) provided the title of the film and a racist rock song sung by gun- rattling Jewish supremacists.
These scenes are punctuated by an ongoing phone conversation between Mograbi and a Palestinian filmmaker trapped inside the besieged city of Jenin, comparing the willful nihilism of the Israelis to the desperation of the Palestinians. Mograbi’s devices build a provocative portrait of a culture whose only frame of reference is a troubled—and dangerously abstracted—past. This is emphasized by the stark, contrasting visuals: the sweeping vistas of the desert surrounding Masada, the dour geometry of watchtowers, barbed wire, and armor-plated Humvees in the occupied territories.
Clearly this film articulates more than one “voice within the siege.” Everyone we encounter seems to interpret their myth-occluded history as part of an ongoing cycle of persecution, righteous struggle, and perpetual threat from the “Philistines” that surround them. Throughout the film, Mograbi picks up on the inconsistent Israeli attitudes toward immolating oneself for the sake of others. Suicide is altruistic and laudable when it occurs as a part of Israeli history, fanatic and wrong on the part of Palestinian suicide bombers.—Mitchell Miller
Cineaste: Where did the idea for Avenge but One of My Two Eyes come from?
Avi Mograbi: 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. A friend of mine tried to engage me in a discussion about it, and I said I didn’t know much about that, but I could easily talk about the death culture of Israel. This got me to thinking about the history of Masada and Samson. In the case of Masada it was interesting how the roles reversed; the Romans are the Israelis and the Palestinians are the Jews. In a way, Samson was the first suicide bomber in history.
So the idea was to make a historical documentary. This kind of film usually employs maps, excavations, and dramatizations to try to represent how things happened. Instead of using them, I decided to use contemporary scenes from the occupied territories to illustrate how things may have happened.
Cineaste: The film seems to suggest that many of the answers to the suicide bombing phenomenon lie with the Israelis themselves.
Mograbi: I’m not sure people realise the extent to which our identification with Samson is used to indoctrinate our youth. In the film we make a big leap of 2,000 years, but if you look at events now, those narratives indoctrinate our youth who then become these soldiers – these bright young people who do these incredibly dirty jobs without questioning them.
And these myths—of Masada as the last stronghold of those who want to be free—it’s about enhancing our willingness to fight. The whole attribution of a ‘death culture’ to Islam is a way to inhibit the real discussion—that we have pushed Palestinians to the point at which there is no big difference between living and dying. Israelis don’t want to acknowledge this. We don’t want to see the Palestinians as living human beings driven into this impossible way of living—“security” often means simple oppression. Look, we live all the time in a world of double standards. When we teach Samson to our kids as a hero, we can’t see that what he is doing would today be considered a crime against humanity. In the occupied territories we tell ourselves we are working to create “security” and cannot see the moral implications. We have to reevaluate our culture and our deeds.
Cineaste: In one segment we see a teacher speak of Samson’s fear and humiliation. Is this a myth that perhaps works into the legacy of the Holocaust, constantly reinforcing a fear that it could happen again unless Israel is constantly on the defensive?
Mograbi: People in Israel don’t fear the Holocaust so much anymore, but it is often vulgarly invoked to push us into being soldiers for the state. I’m not sure you can evaluate now what the real fears are. The Holocaust is being abused to create this feeling that we are eternally the victims and are justified in defending ourselves. It’s all some kind of self-indoctrination to tell us we are endangered by the Palestinians—this is a lot of bullshit—and in the same way Bush has also used this argument—the dance is eternal.
Cineaste: Who is the Palestinian you are speaking to in the film?
Mograbi: Those conversations were taped in April-May 2002, before I started to make the film. At the time there was this big worry about what was happening in Jenin. I called a number of Palestinian friends to find out what was happening and to express my solidarity. When I started making the film I was talking to a friend who was under curfew in Bethlehem, so through these calls I had this interesting graph of his emotional changes. This for me could be a voice from within the siege. You should know that his voice is not his actual voice; it is an actor. I felt I needed to protect him.
Cineaste: What are the difficulties of filming in the occupied territories—these are dangerous areas…
Mograbi: The areas are not so much dangerous but complicated to film. Israel is a wonderful democracy—if you are Jewish. So in my case it is obvious that I am an Israeli and a Jew. The reaction to me was sometimes harsh, but were I a Palestinian… We got close to violence, but it never really erupted. But we were lucky to be Israeli and Jewish and explore the inherent inequalities of this so-called democracy.
Cineaste: You get very involved in these situations; you don’t maintain that detachment typical of many documentaries.
Mograbi: It is always a dilemma for documentary filmmakers brought up on this fly-on-the-wall notion: “We observe, we collect, we don’t influence.” First of all, the concept of objectivity is a distortion of what happens in reality; whatever the situation, it responds to the camera, whether explicitly or not. There is no way you can introduce a camera at a checkpoint so that the soldiers do not notice it. Sometimes it makes them more polite, they will be a little nicer, or they will simply stop people moving. The key to filming at checkpoints is that the power is in your pocket; you can almost blackmail everyone into behaving better. There is no such thing as a transparent camera, and I don’t want to continue this charade. I am here, and my presence influences what you are doing.
The other thing is that all my films are based on subjects that trouble me anyway, that I am involved in. So I do not think I should become less active because I film. I try not to impose rules on my behavior. So when I am driven to react, I do, but the personality on film is not me. I use my presence, but those dilemmas are not exactly my dilemmas. In dealing with those dilemmas, I deal with the subject. If some people see themselves as a fly on the wall, I see myself as a fly in the soup! It is absolute engagement.
Cineaste: I think the most effective piece of imagery from the film is the moment when some soldiers are careering around in a jeep. They are totally blocked off, they become a part of the machinery, almost inhuman.
Mograbi: I must tell you that I myself was astonished at how these soldiers were becoming these faceless machines, like robots, computers. In preparing myself for [my trip to] Belfast and looking at films from Northern Ireland, it was not so different. Occupiers dehumanize themselves. When you encounter those situations, it becomes so symbolic; of course I have to put it in the film.
If you look now at what is happening in certain checkpoints, they are turning them into these big terminals. At the Colandia-Ramallah checkpoint, you don’t see anyone. You go through these revolving doors and there are these big opaque glass windows—you are being monitored all the time, but you cannot see by whom. It’s like a maze. You are examined by people that are not there; you only hear them through a P.A. So it’s becoming systematized, the inhumanity. When the person you talk to is a breath away from you, when you can smell him, then his presence is unmediated; he is human. So when you are dealing with these faceless people there are fewer scruples about what you do. And from the artificial, it is a short step to lying. The checkpoints are designed to remove soldiers from humane relations with the people they check—and we in Israel are not aware of it.
Cineaste: What has been the response to your film in Israel?
Mograbi: This last film was released commercially in one cinema. It got really wonderful reviews and the audience reacted very well—they didn’t come to see it! They just stayed at home. It’s very sad not being able to get to the audience I care about the most.
Cineaste: What accounts for the current renaissance in Israeli documentary?
Mograbi: In the last ten years or so, making documentaries has become feasible for people with lesser means; this is not only true in Israel. Also in Israel we have a law that makes it clear that certain sums of money must go to subsidize cinema every year. This helps a lot; we’ll have to see if it’s sustainable.
Cineaste: Any forthcoming projects we should look out for?
Mograbi: I work very slowly. I make a film every two years, and there is nothing planned right now, but hopefully I have not spoken my last word!