openDemocracy: In Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti pa’am lagam, 2012), Ali Al Azhari, your former Arabic teacher who lives in Tel Aviv expresses envy at those who travel freely, and in the course of the film, we begin to understand why, including through the eyes of his little daughter. In your choice of people and places as a film-maker, does the phrase ‘personal-political’ adequately describe your interest?
Avi Mograbi: I think to say that the personal is political is already a cliché. But you know, in some people this cliché is perhaps more clearly or more deeply embodied. And certainly someone like Ali Al Azhari, my Arabic teacher who is the main character of my new film, Once I Entered a Garden, or, if you want, his daughter Yasmin – very definitely in their lives they cannot separate the personal from the political – Ali being a refugee in his own country.
Every single detail in his personal life has a political meaning: growing up overlooking the village he was expelled from, where he was born; growing up in Galilee till 1964 under military rule; living in Tel Aviv as an Arab Palestinian in a society of Jews; being ‘the different’, being ‘the other’, ‘the enemy’; and of course, eventually marrying a Jewish woman and having a kid, which is something that is so uncommon in Israel; and then passing on this personal-political DNA to his daughter Yasmin.
So, for those people, the circumstances of their lives turns the personal to the political… I definitely chose to make a film with Ali and with Yasmin because I identify with this idea that you cannot separate the personal from the political, that the public and the private cannot be detached from each other.
For sure this is why I am so interested in life in the Middle East and definitely this is why I was drawn to make a film about the origins of my family in Beirut and Damascus.
Imagine! They were both Jews and Arabs, and so they were Jews and the enemies of the Jews at one and the same time, as the people of Israel see them. When I mention in the film that my father would have died if he thought that I was considering him an Arab - this is, well personal, and it is obviously political – so this is captivating for me!
The opening of Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti pa’am lagam)
oD: Three elements in this beautiful film have been described as, ‘at once an intimate portrait of the director’s long-time Palestinian comrade and teacher, poetic account of a love affair torn apart by war, and self-reflexive film-in-the-making’ (Jordan Mintzner, Hollywood Review). But this leaves out your relationship with Ali. How central was this personal relationship to the conception of the film?
AM: Ali Al Azhari and I have known each other for more than thirty years so of course this relationship was a crucial element in making this film, although this film was not meant to portray this relationship, but maybe trying to drift to the old Middle East, to the pre-48, pre-State of Israel Middle East, pre-reparcelization of the Middle East.
But I could not have gone on this journey with Ali unless our relationship allowed it, unless I knew him so well, I knew what a wonderful storyteller he is, how much of a frustrated actor he is and how much he likes to act his stories – so this was definitely a main factor in deciding to ask Ali to join me on the journey.
And indeed Ali has more than fulfilled what I could ever have asked for or expected. Take our first meeting concerning the film, which is one of the first scenes in the film in which I tell him about my family origins in Lebanon and Syria and how they travelled from Syria to Palestine and to Egypt and back. Immediately after that he pulls out from his bookshelves the amazing ‘Yellow Pages’ of the 1930’s of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, where you could find my family listed in Tel Aviv alongside some of my friends in Beirut and so forth. Of course when he pulled out this book and showed it to me, when we looked at it, I knew that I had made absolutely the right decision to make a film with him. It is just a book of data. It is names and addresses. Nothing more. But I told him, “Look, this is the script of my film where people in the Middle East are listed by their name and by their location and not by their ethnic origin.”
This is maybe what the film is trying to tell us. That there was a different Middle East and maybe we should take some energy from this past – not nostalgia! – but energy and take it with us for the future. And the future is Yasmin, Ali’s daughter, who is both Palestinian and Jewish, who speaks both languages fluently, and who, well, hopefully will find a way to survive through all this.
oD: In the discussions you have about the diaspora that existed in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine before this part of the Middle East was sliced up along religious lines, as in the flash-back sequences filmed in Super 8 or 16mm in which a woman writes to a lover lost through conflict, you seem more interested in the different ways that people deal with loss and with valuing the lives they have than in what might have been or lost garden paradises?
AM: I think that the different ways that people deal with loss and how they live their life with loss is of course the most interesting thing. I would love to be able to be totally unpolitical here and only think of our present existence in the Middle East as a collective of personal lives. Maybe that would then be a solution for our lives here. Probably I would have preferred to have dealt with how people deal with their lives personally than with the political issues, and questions of nations and territories and passports.
Alas, this is not always possible. A lot of times, in order to be able to deal with the personal, you have to turn political and seek for political solutions.
But look at it in the reverse way. If I succeeded in embodying the political in the personal lives of people, then I would think that my film is a success and that I am not just preaching, but I’m telling stories that touch people in the deepest way.
oD: It’s wonderful that father and daughter share their concern with you about what both can bring to this unscripted film – but then both bring so much, unprompted. You knew this would happen didn’t you? As a filmmaker, how do you ‘prepare’ for this?
AM: The truth is that I knew exactly how Ali and Yasmin interact and how Ali interacts with me, and that there will be a lot of unexpected things that might happen there - when it comes to Ali, you can definitely say - spontaneous outbursts – positive outbursts, of course!
Of course, my choice to make the film with Ali was based on the unexpected. So as a film-maker, I tried to prepare myself as little as possible.
On the contrary, I came to Ali without a script. Actually I came with an idea not to make a film about us two – but to make a film about a third character – an imagined reconstruction of the life of a cousin of my father who travelled the Middle East and who continued to travel the Middle East after it was sliced to pieces in ’48 – a person who ignored the new laws, the new regulations, the new borders, and who continued to cross them – come to Tel Aviv – go back to Beirut – as if nothing has happened.
This was unheard of. Once the State of Israel was founded, Israel was an isolated island and you could not travel from Beirut to Tel Aviv and return alive. Yet this cousin of my father did it and I wanted to reconstruct imagined moments in his life and this is why I turned to Ali because Ali could help me with writing the script that had to be partly in Arabic.
So actually, we shot the film while preparing to make another film!
So I most certainly didn’t have to prepare for this film – we were just working in a spontaneous way, listening to one another, and getting feedback. At the point where we got to the story of the cousin of my father – we realized that we had already made the film! The character of my father’s cousin only echoes in the fictional letters that were later written as the extra part of the film. So yeah I just let it roll, and I’m very happy with how it turned out!
oD: How important is it to you as a film-maker to use a two-camera system, so that you can frame both the action and the framing of the action, and the story can be told from two sides?
AM: Shooting in two cameras and exposing the sewing together of the film, exposing the inner parts of how we make the film, is definitely a tool – and it certainly was in this film – a tool to allow certain issues to surface – because a lot of times, the consideration of how things should be told, how things should be expressed, is actually already a big part of the actual expression of those things.
And I enjoy very much sharing with my viewers the making of the film, and indeed with Ali, a lot of his considerations were about the issues that should be taken on in the making of the film, and of course those considerations exposed the dilemmas that we live in, and this is actually what the film is about.
So, yeah, it is fun to make a film, and the ‘making of’ of the film at the same time. It is also time- and money-saving!
oD: Food and conversation are very compelling throughout this film, although it's tough competing with a revolution!… why are they so important?
AM: Food is a great comfort and food is also something that you share with the ones you love. And of course, when we tell each other stories, and personal stories, we feed each other with soul food. So why not feed each other with food food?
Again because this film was spontaneous, so at certain moments we were eating and yeah – maybe some of the nicest stories were told also while we were eating. So the food is on the table, we share the food. Middle Eastern food is great, and so, yes, I think people who are reading this should maybe eat while they are reading…