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Avi Mograbi making sure we don’t see something that isn’t there

The motivation becomes artistic. You want to tell a story like a good storyteller and then you become political again and then you become artistic again. At least if you are hated, maybe, you are doing something right.  Interview with the filmmaker.

Michael Goldin Avi Mograbi
20 June 2014

Michael Goldin (MG): Avi, to what extent do you see your filmmaking as activism? We know you are involved with Breaking the Silence (Hebrew: שוברים שתיקהShovrim Shtika). To what extent do you see these two activities, bearing witness and film-making as similar, exposing Israeli human rights abuses from within Israeli society?

Avi Mograbi (AM): 20 years ago I would have said that: Yes I am here to change the world and cinema can do things and if you provide viewers with information and experience and a point of view, there must be a possibility or a hope that things will change.

But I am less naïve now and it doesn’t mean that my triggers have changed, I am still triggered by human rights issues, but given the politics of the Middle East, given the actual situation - I have little hope that my work will have an impact on reality. With Breaking the Silence, there is also a question mark: how much can we leave an impact on reality? It is absolutely not clear. Perhaps the fact that it is the most hated NGO in Israel is a good sign! But at the same time, the reality just gets worse and worse all the time.

If you have been to Hebron in the past few days, I guess you would know that Hebron is under a severe siege and that people are just being pulled out of their homes without any specific evidence for suspicion concerning their involvement in the kidnapping of the three yeshiva kids. There is a hunger strike of administrative detainees that has been going on for a long time now and the state is currently rushing to pass a law at super speed to forcefeed them. Now with all the arrests, today’s headline in Haaretz said that the number of administrative detainees would be doubled.

So whenever we talk about our impact at Shovrim Shtika (I am a board member since 2004), we meet and discuss issues of our impact, and eventually, the older people, meaning Miki Kratsman, the head of the photography department at Bezalel academy of arts and me - we try to lower the expectations and yet not create an atmosphere that says what we are doing is not important.

We are creating an archive that is almost live, it is collected in real time. This is something very rare, when you compare it to other testimony archives in the US or France, very rarely are the perpetrators’ testimonies collected in real time and out of free will.

Rosemary Bechler(RB): When people have brought themselves to the position where they are willing to bear witness to what happened, they must be very eager for some impact. It must be very hard if they have no response.

AM: But this is a fact. Some wish to have a change, but the number is not large and we don’t see change coming.

MG: So would it be fair to say that the work of Shovrim Shtika perhaps has a greater impact outside Israel? There was an article a couple of weeks ago in the Guardian

AM: It definitely has a bigger impact outside than inside.

RB: Might that be another reason for hating the ngo?

AM: This is a secondary reason. I think the first reason is that it provides a mirror and given the situation in the Middle East, no one is looking for a mirror. Everyone looks elsewhere for the role of ‘the other’ in the crisis - not its own role or its own impact on why we are in such deep shit.

RB: Anyone watching your films can see that every cut and every choice is an encouragement for people to think, think again, think differently. So your films too can be described as a mirror. Doesn’t this motivate your artistry?

AM: Look, whether you have an effect or not… if you realise you don’t have an effect, should you shut up or shut down? You still have things to say, you still have thought and even if you are talking to yourself it is very dangerous if people were not going to express their worries because they think that there is no effect.

Still you should say what’s on your mind and definitely create the picture the way you see it. A lot of times, it is a question of interpretation, who sees what and how.

And anyway, I cannot say this about my own work, because I want to be there when it does have an impact, but with Shovrim Shtika we say, “Look, it may not have an impact now, but it will be there when history demands that an investigation takes place.”

Being an artist is much more egocentric. You don’t want to die before it becomes relevant. But this is certainly what we are saying to the Shovrim Shtika guys: it may not have an impact, but it is still important to collect those testimonies, those facts, and the clearer the memory is, the fresher it is the better. Let’s not wait 60 something years like the people who collect Nakba testimonies. Let’s not wait until who knows what happens to your brain and memory, before you decide that it’s time to talk.

RB: We have seen in Britain how it is exactly at the stage where there are no longer people alive who remember what really happened in WW2, that all the myths begin to redouble and be manipulated.

AM: At least in that sense Breaking the Silence is very unique. People sometimes testify while in service, not too many, but still that doesn’t happen too often.

MG: I saw Avenge for the first time a week or so ago and really enjoyed it. To what extent are you posing questions to the audience, exposing issues and asking them to make up their own minds, or pointing the audience in a particular direction and giving them the answer?

AM: I think with Avenge but one of my two eyes, I was trying to propose an alternative view of understanding or reading reality. Avenge was born in 2002 when there were a lot of suicide bombings inside Israel. You probably remember post-9/11 discussions about the ‘death traditions’ of Islam and you would read people on this who left you unsure whether they knew Islam or not.

But this was very present, this conversation about Islam being a deadly tradition. At one point there was a suicide bomb in Tel Aviv and that same afternoon a good friend came to our house and she started talking about that death tradition of Islam.

I said, “ Look, I don’t know too much about Islam. But I do know a little bit about our tradition, our heritage ”, and I mentioned these two myths, Masada and Samson. After all - if you think of what Samson did, he is probably the first suicide bomber in history.

He stands in the Temple of Dagon, between the pillars, and pulls the edifice down on top of himself and 3000 nameless people. The only thing we know about them is that they are Philistines. And that one of them at least was an inncocent, the boy who led him into the temple. He does exactly what suicide bombers are doing, killing nameless people, killing people who are not on any list of concrete crimes. (Not that I think the death penalty is acceptable!)

So this started the idea I had of trying to tell those two myths and illustrate them. When you watch a historical documentary, sometimes they show pictures of places or artefacts of archaeological interest and interviews etc… and sometimes they also do staging of written accounts, enactments, supposedly of how things were. They stage things with actors, sometimes in the real places... so I thought I would illustrate my two stories not with a staged performance, but with documentary moments from the occupied territories.

This was a time of siege, this was a time of suicide, this was a time of the creation of blockades and it made sense. Again, the motivation at a certain point becomes artistic. You want to tell a story like a good storyteller and then you become political again and then you become artistic again. Those films are not only propaganda. I only wish I was a Stalinist and that they were good propaganda, but alas. One of the reasons my films sometimes don’t have the impact I could wish is that the artistic side makes them too complicated to turn into propaganda.

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Avenge but one of my two eyes (2005)MG: Is it your point then that the Jewish tradition as well has this kind of death wish in its history if you want to look for it? You show the Kachniks and the Kahane supporters singing the verses from Samson and waving their guns. Are you saying Israel does this as well?

AM: The film does not deal with Muslims at all. I am not an expert in that. But I can talk about where I grew up and the tradition or the brainwashing that I have gone through. So the Muslim aspect was a trigger for the discussion, but it does not appear in the film at all.

RB: What kind of debate did you get?

AM: No debate at all. Of course if you wait outside the cinema…the film played very poorly in one cinema in Tel Aviv…if you wait outside people come out and you discover that most of them are the converted. The film critics were great in Israel, but the film never managed to cross over from the art section to the social section of the newspaper. I am definitely anti any suicide bombing - that is one of the points of film. If suicide bombing is so terrible as Israeli societies agree, how come we teach Samson to our children as a hero? But there was never any article even abusing me. At least if you are hated, maybe you are doing something right.

MG: So it is a Jewish film, about the Jewish tradition.

Avi: All my films are about the Jewish tradition. Perhaps “Jewish” is a bit abstract, but all my films deal with Israeli society. And I hope the Palestinians will not be offended by this, but they appear only as one of the issues that I look at in my own society. The last thing I want to do is criticise societies that I am foreign to or that I don’t know. The British can relax, even though they jailed my father!

RB: I am surprised there weren’t people who said, “You are trying to take away from me the narratives of my childhood.”

AM: They did not see the film, that is all. Most of the people that the film could have engaged in an ideological discussion did not see the film. It was broadcast on a very small documentary channel and that’s it. I thought Avenge was a very strong film, a very harsh film, and the film which should have created some kind of discussion and I was highly disappointed that it didn’t.

There was a moment when I thought, maybe I will not make any more films. And at the same time that no discussion was created in Israel, my international career was flourishing. The film was in the official selection for the Cannes Film Festival which is what every filmmaker wishes for his film. It was shown at many, many festivals and released in cinemas in several countries, and so it was very frustrating. Eventually I did make more films. But by the time you get Z32, you will have seen that what I am thinking in that film is precisely the issue of the cynicism involved in making political cinema that does not mean anything to the world, but that does mean a lot to the career of the artist. It is there in the text of the songs that I sing. “He is confessing and I make the earnings”, not the money involved, but the artistry.

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Z32 (2008)RB: Do you think Israel defends itself from these outside debates in a particular way or is that just as true of many other countries in relation to dissenting artists?

AM: I am not sure that I know how it is in other countries. There are some terrible examples that I don’t want Israel to be compared to; now as you can see I have suddenly become a patriot, now I defend Israel! Take Iran, Syria, where filmmakers cannot show their work at all, and where it has only an underground exposure at home, but big exposure internationally.

It makes sense that this will happen wherever the state is doing such devastating things that it must clash with the international world. It was the same with France and Algeria, and the same in South Africa during the apartheid years.

RB: Moving on to Z32, can I ask, in Breaking the Silence, do you take people back to the location where conflict or an atrocity occurred, to stimulate people’s memories, as you do in this film with the Israeli ex-soldier?

AM: That is not what they do. They collect testimonies in a location remote from the scene of the crime. I was not sure whether I wanted to take him there or not. But he was very keen to go. I was horrified by what he did there, leveraging himself up to look over the wall. He also makes a gesture of pointing a gun, and I was like, “come on, someone will see us”. This scene you know was shot one day after Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. I asked myself whether it was okay to take him to where someone could identify him. Of course it was unlikely, because all the people who could identify him were dead. But poetically, it was very strong…..

RB: At the end of that sequence he says that if someone shot at you there, it would be some kind of poetic justice. From the beginning of the film, you know he has done something, but you don’t know what, there is a lot of apprehension in your audience. You wonder who this is who we are being presented with, especially because his face is covered. You seem very aware of the balance of fear in your films. I wonder how this relates to your extraordinary decision to have an orchestra in your living room as a kind of counterpoint throughout?

AM: I wasn’t trying to frighten you at all. Of course it is a frightening story, what can happen to a normal kid. Maybe this is actually the main point, that he is normal, he is not a monster. This is why it was so important for me to give him a real face. At the beginning of the work we did several tests and the digital effect guys made the suggestion that if we had to have a mask, we should have a Fagin-type mask from Oliver Twist. I said, “No, this is the face of a monster. But I want someone who could be my own son.” It couldn’t be as it happens, because my son refused to serve and was jailed for that. But this was the point, he was just another Israeli boy.

MG: Was one of the motivations for covering his face that very point? In a way it doesn’t really matter who it is, who committed the crime, the crime was a product of Israeli society and most people who do serve may be in the same position and commit the same crime?

AM: First of all, you must understand, it was his demand not to be exposed. Right now only Israeli generals have a problem travelling to London or Spain and Belgium, it seems. But he does not know what will happen in the future, and he wanted to defend himself against this. You could say that was not very brave of him, but brave is not a good word here, because after all he did stand up to what he did and openly confess. So I am not going to judge him for wanting to cover his face.

He demanded to be concealed and once I realised that, I had to ask myself, how could I make a film where you cannot see the facial expressions of the main protagonist ? And also, when you blur a face or digitise it, this immediately becomes an image of terror, of a monster, whereas I wanted to be able to look into his eyes and see what is happening there, or at least make sure that we don’t see something that is not there.

RB: Early in the film, you go into this scene where we see you with this stocking over your head which could be terrifying, if it wasn’t for the fact that there is a sitting room lampshade behind your head which makes it look very funny indeed. You set about cutting the eyes and nose and mouth out of the stocking so that you can breathe - and…how long did you practice that for? It was beautifully done! I thought, this is a new skill!

AM: This shot had two takes only, and what you see is comprised of those two takes. My wife entered spontaneously, I was doing what I normally do in my previous films - writing with the camera. And then suddenly she came in and I knew this could never be repeated because it is spontaneous and secondly because she would never agree. She says so herself there: “I am not in the film”. Of course she changed her mind when I showed it to her and she agreed that it will be in the film. But I knew it could never be repeated. What you see is cut between the first and second take and it was never redone--so I certainly didn’t practice it.

RB: Well it is wonderful. And so is the interaction between this boy and his girlfriend. They have a rather touching relationship. One doesn’t just think he is a normal boy. You think he is actually very lucky that he has a girl who is clearly very involved with him and cares about him. It seems all the more importantly human because of the masks, which also become a complicated motif throughout. In the course of the retellings of the film, doesn’t he say that when he shot at the Palestinians, their identities were erased for him – they were just like “grey stains”?

AM: He says that he was shooting him as if it was a stain, something shapeless, not of human shape. This is how I understand it, when he says this was just a stain. You know, it was his idea to start shooting her, without telling me. I gave him a camera and suggested that he do his own testimony alone because he wasn't comfortable with it, and then he started shooting her. And when I saw the discussions, I was fascinated by what was going on. But I didn't tell him a word about what to do, because as I said, I could only have ruined it, something so good was happening there. So, I met her for the first time when I invited her to see the rough cut. None of that was planned.

MG: A lot of filmmakers put themselves into their films, especially if they want to make a political or moral point. Michael Moore for example…

AM: Why do you mention Michael Moore? It is so insulting, so insulting--insulting to him probably!

MG: Only because you both do this in such a very personal way. You film speaking directly to the audience: it is filmed in your own living room.

RB: And you take the trouble to sing to us from your living room rather nicely.

AM: Look, the festival here is showing films that start from 2000: August, Avenge, Z32 and Once I Entered a Garden. August actually became a trilogy. I didn’t know that it would at the time, but afterwards there was How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Ariel Sharon and Happy Birthday Mr Mograbi and then there was August. These were films, that didn’t just deal with the same issue, but they were about this filmmaker who goes out to film his society and things happen to him. And there is a mixture, a mixing up between documentary and fiction, in all three of them. Unlike Avenge which came after August and has no fiction at all, not even for one second.

MG: Are you referring in August to where you act the part of your wife and also of your colleague as ‘the fiction’?

AM: Yes. In the preceding two films, the story tells how I go to make a film about Sharon and I fall under his influence and forget who he is and become a follower and my wife leaves me because of it - which was not true.

I did make a film about Mr.Sharon and I did understand something about the charisma of this politician, of this person, but I never fell into his net and I definitely didn’t lose my wife because of that. So in those three films there was a lot of humour and there was a lot of freedom, because I was tampering with my own history, which I hope doesn’t affect world history too much.

So there were a lot of funny inventions like playing myself, my wife and my producer, playing them against each other, which was completely absent in Avenge, because of the particular way that film developed. In fact, early on, I thought I might do some fictional scenes. I grew my hair for 18 months, because I was planning on doing the Samson suicide video. I only have to say that for you to understand immediately why this could not be in the film; the film is so tragic I could not put it in the film. The whole tone of the film changed while I was making it. I realised those funny ideas which were in the previous films could not be applied here, because it would be pornography, bad taste.

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August: A Moment Before the Eruption (2002)RB: But you did put yourself into this film too, talking to a Palestinian friend in the West Bank?

AM: Yes, someone who was stuck there during Defensive Shield and the curfew in Bet Lehem. If you remember, in Bet Lehem there were Palestinian fighters in a besieged Church of Nativity. He was living in Bet Lehem at the time and so was under curfew for six weeks. These were conversations that were recorded a long time before I thought of making the film.

I was calling him during the Defensive Shield Operation among various friends and acquaintances to know how they were, if I could help in anything, to express my solidarity. I realised that those conversations in particular over such a long timespan were very interesting, so I started taping them, with their knowledge, of course. They knew, but I did not have any particular end purpose in mind. Eventually I used this conversation with one person for Avenge and with another person I made, Wait, it's the soldiers, I have to hang up now. We had been in the middle of our conversation when the soldiers walked into his home: so in the middle of his conversation he slammed the phone down.

I started to make Avenge and was focused on the Masada story, and suddenly I realised that this guy I was talking with could be a voice from within the siege, and then this became the backbone of the film. He is the only character who appears more than once in the film.

RB: So now we can return to Z32 where, as you said, it’s very important to you that you do complicate the position of the filmmaker in the film, by raising the question of his own gratification in making it in the first place….

AM: Yes of course this is not the only issue. My main concern, and this is what the filmmaker represents, is how civil society deals with its agents when they come back home with stories of what they did and how. It is not only the filmmaker, also the girl who speaks for Israeli civil society and definitely also my wife. Together, we represent civil society and I think that my subject, Z32 (this is his codename in Shovrim Shtika’s archive), is actually trying to make us understand him by retelling his story. Of course he concretely asks his girlfriend to audition for his own role, and this is also the case with his decision to make the film together with me - he seems to be in some kind of process of transferring, and hoping to be understood.

So you can say that my fondness for including myself in my films is a certain style. But it is also a more profound thing than style. I never make films that are not about things that are not terribly bothering me. After all I don’t need to make more films. (I am not talking now like a big master. But it is a fact that I never have two films in my head. I can deal with one film maybe every four years.) And when I finish a film, I don’t need to make another one until there is something that really bothers me. The film is a tool to deal with this problem and it is also a personal tool; I don’t want to say ‘therapy’ because it is not therapeutic.

But it is really personal, it really comes from somewhere that resides below the heart and above the belt that is aching. And apparently, I have somehow found a way to have my little….no big… red nose close to the lens, which also allows me to lie a lot, especially when someone says such terrible things about himself, as that I fell in love with Ariel Sharon - for a radical leftist, you must understand this is awful! It is sleeping with the devil, with Satan himself.

But when you say it close to the camera, look into the camera and don’t smile, people believe you. This is what happened in Israel. An awful lot of people did believe that I did flip politically.

And so, when we decided to sing, when I decided to work with Noam (who is going to do the performance with me on Friday night), then there was nowhere I could think of singing apart from at home. The film all happens inside in fact, physically at home and inside in the brain and emotions. Going out into the field was actually a way of breaking with this idea. But it was very clear for me that if I was going to sing, I sing at home.

RB: When Z32 gets out to that place, he says in a wondering tone of voice, “there is nothing here”. The contrast with the home, a place of security and rich meaning is very stark.

Avi: It is very interesting that he says, “there is nothing here”. What could be? In his memory this place is where there is fire, people, there are bodies, there is the decor of a war movie and he comes there and suddenly it is an empty studio. It is in a way the image he has in his mind that is shattered, because when he goes back into the field, he cannot see what he has in his memory. It is very strong.

MG: You said that the films you make come from deep inside of you and concern issues you care about. It seems that most of the films you make are about the Israeli/Palestine conflict. Are you interested in other issues?

AM: I don’t think Z32 is about the about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: I think it is about Israeli society. Of course, the conflict is part of that, but again, Z32 doesn’t have anything to do with the conflict. It is about soldiers, about being brought up to be a soldier, about Sparta, and then it is about soldiers coming back home and having to live with what they have done and whoever sent them to do it.

When this film was shown in France in so many places - it speaks to people who don’t know the conflict at all. Anyway, the word ‘Palestinian’ is mentioned only three or four times, perhaps. It does not have anything to do with the conflict.

For instance, right now I am making a film about African asylum seekers in Israel. Again, this is not about Palestine/Israel. I don’t know how it will turn out, because we just started. But my motivation is not to tell the history of asylum seeking, or fleeing Sudan and Eritrea. This is not where it starts. It starts from the Jews that fled Germany and arrived at the Swiss border and were rejected and sent back. And when the state of Israel tries to reject people or send them back – well, we have 50,000 asylum seekers and they are giving them shit.

So it is about what it means to be Jewish. Israel was heavily involved in writing the Refugee Convention. But when formulating it they forget to put an asterisk next to “refugee” and to put at the bottom, “Jewish refugee”. Because once you are a Jewish refugee, well we understand everything follows. But if you are another kind of refugee, I’m sorry we are too busy. So this film too is about Israel: it is not about asylum-seeking in the world.

RB: As Michael wrote in his review of your films for OCDF, they are about your people, your culture, yourself. Maybe that is the easiest way to understand the many different roles that you play. You are not willing to let yourself off the hook either. You want us to realise that we all have to put ourselves in the frame, and to ask ourselves what this is for us?

AM: Yes, when I made August, and again this was something which was not planned, I realised that there are many moments in which I am not so nice, and I wouldn’t want you to think this is how I am, not only in the documentary parts, but also in the fiction parts. The home situation is so grotesque, an ugly comedy in which you cannot like anybody there. But they are all me, and the more grotesque the better if you ask me.

It is very clear to me that I cannot talk about these others, which by the way, a lot of the time is what documentaries do - they criticise their own society and in a way they exempt themselves and stay clean - the act of pointing the finger is actually absolving you. But that’s not so easy after all.

Avenge but one of my two eyes will be shown at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London WC1 at 21:00 on June 20. Get tickets here.

The Avi Mograbi master class is at 13.30 on June 21 in Studio 2, Roberts Buildings, Torrington Place, London WC1. Get tickets here.

Once I entered a garden will be shown at 18.00 on June 21 in the Birkbeck Cinema, Gordon Square, London WC1. Get tickets here. 

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