Avenge But One of My Two Eyes is an astute exploration of the Israel/Palestine conflict by acclaimed Israeli documentarian, Avi Mograbi, special guest at this year’s Open City Docs Fest. In typical fashion, there is little ostensible film narrative. Rather, Mograbi weaves together a series of different clips which enable him to provide a snapshot of various aspects of the conflict and quickly and precisely question the actions of the various protagonists.
The documentary has two major themes. Regarding the first, Mograbi films Israeli tour guides at the Masada fort as they explain how the lengthy Roman siege of 73 CE resulted in the suicide of the 960 Jewish rebels trapped within. He also films the discussions that various Israelis have regarding the tragedy at Masada and the story of Samson and Delilah; in particular Samson’s final act in which he pulls down the pillars of the palace where he is being held captive so that he can both commit suicide and kill the thousands of attendant Philistines.
The conversations revolve around the morality of these acts and what people would do if they found themselves in these situations. This all raises questions regarding the comparisons that can be drawn with Palestinian violence, in particular suicide bombers and the extremes people will go to when they have exhausted all other options. There clearly is a paradox between celebrating ancient myths replete with violence and condemning similar acts of violence executed by Palestinians.
This ties in with the second major theme of the film. Mograbi documents Palestinians being prevented from crossing numerous checkpoints in the West Bank. We see soldiers preventing a husband taking his unwell wife into “Israel proper” for medical treatment, Palestinian labourers travelling to work being made to stand on rocks for hours for seemingly no reason at all and schoolchildren forced to wait at a locked gate for a significant amount of time before they are allowed to return home.
He also films a telephone conversation he has with a Palestinian friend who appears to be under house arrest in the West Bank. The disembodied voice explains the physical and psychological difficulties which often result from being confined to the home in such a way. While explicitly rejecting violent terrorism, his friend explains that some people feel that this is the only way to combat a military occupation and the only response that is left to them after decades of humiliation, discrimination and abuse.
Mograbi explicitly probes this question. He films an older woman who has been stopped at a checkpoint forced to sit around for hours in the sun, as she opines that it would be better to be dead than to suffer such humiliation (the link to the Masada story). Mograbi’s friend under house arrest expands on this and explains that when people think this they often think that the only solution is to end it all and kill as many of the “enemy” as possible in the course of doing so (parallels with the death of Samson).
To my mind Mograbi is making the point that as well as it being necessary to combat terrorism both politically and with the appropriate security precautions, we also need to understand its psychology and the circumstances which gives rise to it.
This is not to defend or excuse it in any way, but rather meant to provoke us to attempt to understand the desperate frame of mind which results in such violence. It makes clear to us that it is necessary to do something which fights terrorism at this source; a more nuanced approach needs to be taken to combat such violence rather than just heavy-handed militarism.
This is hardly new in itself. The huge importance of “hearts and minds” has been public knowledge at least since the Vietnam War if not much earlier. Yet Mograbi is not making a military or even a political point; rather, he seeks to draw out the more social and moral implications. This is reminiscent of points made by Michael Mansfield QC about the need to understand terrorists, when he defended a number of the perpetrators involved in the Irish Troubles. While of course not making excuses for the atrocities they committed, he spoke out about coming to a certain understanding of why they committed the horrific acts that they did.
People who are desperate and do not see the point in living or who do not see any other option for getting themselves out of the horrible predicament in which they find themselves, do desperate and terrible things. This does not excuse these acts but neither does it mean we should ignore the circumstances in which they occurred, in case we can positively affect them.
As I mentioned above, the tapestry of clips and themes which Mograbi weaves together is very characteristic of his filmmaking style. His presence in his own films is also very typical. In Avenge But One of My Two Eyes he is seen on the phone with his Palestinian friend, but also interacting with people while he is behind the camera. Often, he is told that he is not allowed to film in a particular place or he learns things from passers-by who give important context to the situation. The dramatic final scene of the film sees him shouting manically at the soldiers who refuse to let the schoolchildren through the gate.
What effect does his presence have on the audience. It is possible that for some this will confirm the subjectivity of the film, making them less open-minded to the questions that it raises. However this is improbable: if anything it is liable to have the opposite effect. Avi Mograbi was born in Israel and part of the Israeli establishment as well; the fact that he then confronts this establishment for the crimes which in his opinion they have committed only lends credibility to his claims.
Z32I think that the reason Mograbi features so prominently in his own films is that for him it is personal. He is not a film-maker who searches for something that interests him and goes and makes (an objective) film about it. Rather, he makes films about his people, his history, his politics and so ultimately he is making a film about himself. It is impossible for him to separate himself from the subject because in a very real sense he is the subject. It is not possible for him to separate himself from discussions about Israeli politics/society because he is Israeli politics/society.
This gives his films, and this film in particular, a certain hard edge. Israel is being criticised from within, by one of their own. There is no pretence at being impartial, rather he tells the story as he sees it without any compromise, and does so both cleverly and artistically.
Avi Mograbi’s films return over and over again to conflict. To him, conflict lies at the heart of every story worth telling and the role of the filmmaker is to expose it and present it in a meaningful way to the viewer. In a number of his more recent films, also showing at the OCDF festival, you can detect an evolution in his thinking on this.
In August: A Moment Before the Eruption (2002), Mograbi presents a series of clips which capture various fragments of life in Israeli society. All involve some sort of altercation and all result in his being told that he should not be filming, including: the aftermath of a stone throwing incident, a left-wing protest and a strictly orthodox Jewish religious ceremony. The point he makes is that conflict in Israel in not simply confined to ‘the Israeli/Palestinian conflict’, but rather part of broader tensions which are present all the way through Israeli society.
August: A Moment Before the Eruption (2002)By the time we are invited to think about our relationship to historical and mythical violence in Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (2005), the figure of Samson, seen as a great freedom fighter by many, forces us to confront our own attitudes to the violence of Palestinians, and in particular suicide bombings. Mograbi also offers us his own far from impartial, indeed deeply conflicted experience as the man behind the camera. In Z32 (2008), Mograbi takes the theme of conflict back to basics and explores inner, personal conflict as opposed to the external conflicts of previous films. He films an ex-Israeli soldier who had been ordered to kill a number of Palestinian policeman in a revenge attack and his struggle to reconcile himself to what he has done and to obtain forgiveness from his girlfriend.
Mograbi, in his typical tragicomic fashion, also explores his own conflict in making this film. He questions whether he should allow a “murderer” to be put centre stage in this way, and if so, how exactly he should tell this sensitive, yet curiously playful story.
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