by Jeff Reichert
Avenge but One of My Two Eyes
Dir. Avi Mograbi, Israel, no distribution
The grubby, shaky-cam technique used in hot-topic features bearing the documentary tag these days betrays the ignorance of their makers—these folks may have important stories to tell, but that in no way frees them to indulge in substandard filmmaking. Shooting “in the real” presents obvious complications in capturing subjects adequately, but it’s only truly bad filmmakers who end up composing their works from lousy images. Verité styling didn’t make the films of D.A. Pennebaker or the Maysles any less fun to watch. And as much as we’ve seen a decline in legitimate shooting skills as the technology’s become more accessible, the dearth of intellectual editing may be even more troubling. This kind of critique may sound to some as elitist, but what’s not populist about asking that filmmakers treat their subjects and their audiences with a little respect? I suppose that since neither camp is really complaining, I’m the asshole, but I’ll still get excited any time I get to spend time with a documentary filmmaker who’s as good a filmmaker as he/she is a documentarian. Avi Mograbi’s Avenge but One of My Two Eyes, for all its fascinating juxtapositions of Jewish lore and contemporary Israeli political realities, surprises and pleases most in that its function as a documentary essay is fully balanced by its aspirations toward serious art.
Disarmingly simple in conception, Avenge but One of My Two Eyes consists of footage that can be broken down into one of three types: scenes of young Israeli solders interacting (most often rudely) with Palestinians; educational settings in which younger Israelis listen to tour guides and teachers lecture on Samson or the massacre at Masada; and shots of a lengthy phone conversation between the filmmaker and a Palestinian friend living under curfew. The movement between these different modes is sudden, so much so that at first it’s hard to ascertain exactly where Mograbi’s heading, but as he slowly builds his film around these disconnected sequences (the only place, as far as I can tell, we return to is Mograbi’s home), his thesis—that the mythologies of persecution with which the Israeli state continues to indoctrinate their young pay unpleasant dividends when those same youths later enter into their mandatory military service and come into contact with “the enemy”—inexorably emerges cutting cleanly through a wide swath of historical information recognized in the West but probably not often linked to present day failures of diplomacy. It’s a tribute to Mograbi that he’s patient enough a filmmaker to force us wait for the explanation of what we’re seeing, and I imagine in many ways what we’re privy to here are the workings of his own thought processes in attempting to document this immensely charged situation.
Mograbi’s largely handheld camera brings to mind a less lethargic Béla Tarr, while his ability to maintain momentum throughout his isolated vignettes recalls Alan Clarke movies like Contact or Christine. There’s beauty in his ability to frame the historic landscapes of The Holy Land or in offhand captures like soldiers’ hands trying to block the camera’s view, and while the lovely shooting often leaves a sense of melancholy, peeking out amidst the machinations of the unpleasant cycle Mograbi’s tracing is a darkly comic absurdity. This more wry sensibility emerges most fully in two sequences in which Israeli soldiers refuse to meet their Palestinian interlocutors face to face, opting instead to speak via loudspeaker from a humvee or guard tower. Though the stakes are often deadly serious (in one sequence a family is deterred from taking one of their women to a hospital), the way Mograbi frames the interactions, with clearly defined, large (and ridiculous) spaces separating the soldiers and peasants feels rent from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Watching and hearing Mograbi speak through the course of the piece allows us this vantage point—if the phone sequences fail technically (often the friend’s responses are nearly inaudible, and not seemingly due to conscious choice) and aesthetically (the bits of conversation often just run too long or interrupt when they shouldn’t), catching a glimpse of grim smile clues us in to the figure we’re dealing with and personalizes the film’s perspective. But that perspective can shift quickly—a later run-in with another military jeep begins with a similar absurdist bent, but when Mograbi moves to speak with the soldiers driving, his camera bounces back on itself, and all we can see is an ominous shadow sitting smugly behind tinted, bulletproof glass.
The overall thrust of Avenge but One of My Two Eyes suggests that too much focus in the West is placed on the troubled history of the Israeli-Arab relations 1948-present. What we have instead is a conflict with pre-Biblical roots that still hold an unseemly sway over present-day populations. I’m not enough the historian of that region to assess the validity of his argument, but Mograbi’s presentation is certainly compelling. Watching a group of teens on a Birthright tour (a program in which people under 26 of Jewish descent can travel to Israel for little to no personal cost) vote on what they would have done if surrounded by the Romans at Masada presents a terrifying sense of scope to a problem more commonly related to fairly recent historical grudges. (It’s not surprising that the politicos of a nation barely a few hundred years old should wade so blindly in these waters.) When two sides consider themselves the persecuted, and have for thousands of years, what kind of easy détente is really possible? And though his film spends more time with Israelis, and casts a critical eye their way, the shadow of Palestinian counter-extremism always looms large.
But in the midst of this panoramic view Mograbi never fails to remind of simple, human consequences. As day turns to night and the curfew inches ever closer, his conversation with Shredi Jabarin grows bleaker. As Jabarin notes (paraphrasing slightly), “When the Palestinians decide that it is better to be dead than continue to live in these conditions, things will get very bad.” Mograbi’s constructed a surprisingly tensile web of historical and present-day evidence to support that assertion, and he points directly to how these two nations push themselves ever closer to that breaking point. Dancing children and marching penguins may be fine for some, but with so much real-world conflict invisible to the masses, watching works like those only reminds me just how vital filmmakers like Avi Mograbi are. Documentary today should be constantly immersed in questions of this magnitude and always ready to tackle them with his astounding level of eloquence—anything less is a waste.