Screening at the 43rd New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall on Sunday, Sept. 25 at 3:00 pm.
Try to imagine yourself at the mountaintop fortress of Massada, says a tour guide to a group of students. You have four choices while surrounded by the Romans in 72 C.E. You can surrender, pray, fight or kill yourself rather than surrender to the enemy. Asked to make their own choices, the majority of students want to fight, only a few decide to pray and only one says she would surrender. Those who choose to commit suicide give their reasons with pride as if they are being more loyal to Israel than the others. Then we switch to a group of elementary school kids being told the story of Samson who was sold to the Philistines and decided to commit suicide by bringing down the pillars of the palace, killing many of his enemies. The teacher states that he saved the Jews from extinction. A young boy explains that Samson is a hero because he took down as many of the Philistines with him as he could.
Veteran Israeli documentary filmmaker Avi Mograbi uses these two formative stories about suicide as a teaching point to his own people and others around the world that the Jews have not been able to imagine that the yearning for freedom that the Palestinians have is the same as the yearning their heroic figures in the past had. Even more amazing is that they can take the families at Massada and the character of Samson into their hearts as heroes and not see that the Palestinian bombers might be acting from some of the same motives. They cannot, or refuse to, see the connection between the Jewish resistance at Massada and the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli domination.
During this documentary, Mograbi talks to a Palestinian friend living in the West Bank and learns from him that he and many who live nearby are losing the will to live; they cannot envision enduring any more pain and suffering. This means that suicide bombings will increase rather than lessen. The filmmaker enables us to see just what this means on a day-by-day basis as peasants in a field must stop their plowing because a soldier arbitrarily decides to make a show of force. A Palestinian must plead with soldiers to let his wife who is bleeding through a checkpoint. They finally relent and she is taken away in an ambulance. Truck drivers and other businessmen approach men in control towers and must show their IDs. One woman breaks down at a crossing and says that she just doesn’t have the strength to go on after waiting so long and being treated so shamefully. Another woman's daughter cries after seeing her parents humiliated.
In one of the most tense scenes in the film, Mograbi explodes in anger against some Israeli soldiers who cruelly make some elementary school children stand in the burning sun at a fence. They give no reason for their hard-heartedness. In another painful sequence, a right-wing band of Israeli zealots sing a tribute to Samson chanting the lyrics, "Avenge but one of my two eyes on Palestine. Revenge, revenge, revenge." Mograbi has done us all a moral service by challenging us to step into the stories of Massada and Samson and see within them the desperation, anger and futility that fuels the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers. Against the backdrop of violence, this courageous and creative filmmaker offers an alternative: dialogue with those on both sides of the conflict and imagination as a tool that reveals a commonality in stories that touch universal feelings of anger, humiliation, and emptiness.
INTERVIEW WITH AVI MOGRABI
What was the starting point of the film?
Sometimes, a project starts as one thing and ends up as a totally different thing like my film about Ariel Sharon (How I learned to overcome my fear and love Ariel Sharon): it was going to be a harsh political film showing Sharon was a monster, and it ended up being a film about me or people like me! For Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes, the project started a long time before I knew I was actually making a film, because all those phone conversations with my Palestinian friend which are heard throughout the film were taped in April and May 2002: at that time I didn't know I was making a film, although those phone conversations later became the backbone of the film. It was many months later, when I was working on the film, that I realized how essential they were to the project.
But the film also started with the idea of retelling the myth of Massada, considering how much it reflects on present-day events. You have to be aware that we Israelis have always been brought up so as to regard the Zealots as heroes and freedom fighters that we should identify with: we were made to appreciate that freedom was more important than life and that we had better die than fall captive to our enemies. But historian Josephus Flavius in his book The War of the Jews told an altogether different story: the Zealots of Massada are described as murderers, robbers, bandits, and extreme nationalists and definitely not as people to look up to. So I thought it was important to retell the story of Massada. Besides, the fact that the Zealots committed suicide also reflected on today's Palestinian suicide-bombers.
Do you mean to say that the teachings of young Israelis about the Massada myth is close to manipulation?
The thing is, I'm not sure that the teachers themselves have been aware of Massada's true story. Very often, teachers refer to a book without ever reading it. It's the same with Flavius' book: so it's much more the system which is manipulative than the teachers because the teachers didn't know the true story any more than we did. The manipulation began in the 1940's when Rommel was advancing in North Africa: the Jewish community in Palestine was desperate and feared that, when the Germans arrived in the Middle-East, they'd do to them what they did to Jews in Europe. To raise their morale and create a spirit of resistance, they started retelling and rewriting the Massada story for their and future generations. In the beginning of Israel, Jewish leaders such as Ben Gurion objected to the use of the dichotomy of death versus liberty. Eventually, they all accepted it and later made it a constitutive myth of our present history of the Middle-East.
Precisely, what you show with the British students being told about the Massada myth made me think of brainwashing of sorts . . .
It definitely is brainwashing! These teenagers come from Britain to Israel and are led to different milestones of Zionist history: when the guide asks them to close their eyes, listen and tell about what they heard, he coaxes them into saying what he expects to hear. It's an elegant, mild way of brainwashing!
What about Samson's myth?
In Hebrew tradition, we don't refer to Samson and Delilah, but to "Samson the hero." This isn't a biblical name, but we have been brought up so as to believe that he was a hero because when he got desperate, he decided to take his own life and to kill his enemies with him. But nobody has noted that this is exactly what suicide-bombers are doing! If Samson is a hero, how come the Palestinian suicide-bombers are considered war criminals? The idea of using Samson's story came up at the height of the suicide-bombing period in 2002 during a conversation with a friend: she talked about the "death culture of Islam" and argued that we'd been brought up on the same culture and mentioned Samson's name! If you look at moral values, Samson is also a criminal. I then thought to myself that Samson is the first suicide-bomber ever! It occurred to me that I could relate Samson's story to the Massada myth and use them both to reflect on present-day Israel the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Was anything in the film scripted?
Unlike my three previous films, this film is hardly scripted. I didn't know what was going to happen as I was shooting: for the meditation scene of the prologue, for instance, all I knew was that it was a group of British students that got some guidance about the story of Massada. But I had no idea that there was going to be a meditation situation and had no control over it! The same goes for the phone conversations with my Palestinian friend: they are actual conversations that I edited. All I did was hire an actor to dub my friend's voice in order not to expose him. . . He says some harsh things and we know that today, in the occupied territories, people lose their travel permits or even go to jail for lesser things said or done.
Do you consider your documentary as personal diaries?
Not really. In my three previous films, the characters I played are not really me: it's rather a reconstructed version of myself. In Avenge But One Of My Two Eyes my character is probably as close to what I really am as it can get.
How do you go about filming people in pain, such as the Palestinians stranded at the checkpoint? Does it take much time prior to shooting?
It doesn't take any time prior to shooting because I never tamper with the material I shot. I spent about 100 days traveling around the occupied territories, not knowing what would come about: whatever was happening at one given checkpoint wasn't necessarily going to repeat itself the next day. What's so horrible about checkpoints is their arbitrariness: there are no rules, no regulations, everything is up to the soldier's whims you can never tell what's going to happen next. . . I shot more than 250 hours of footage.
Do you have anything as a "moral guideline" as regards your filming of those people?
When you expose someone in an uncomfortable situation, you tend to ask yourself what right you have to do so. The question is: what's worse? To show their humiliation or not to show it? Should I shoot it or hide it? Palestinians in the occupied territories understand the importance of the presence of the media. They rarely object to being filmed. In the scene where the guy is standing on a stone, he even encourages me to shoot him and hopes that the film will be broadcast everywhere to show his predicament.
What about the scene of the peasant who can't plough his land?
This is a situation where Israeli leftist activists deliberately go there to make things easier on the Palestinians: if those activists weren't there, the army and the settlers could kick them off more easily. I was active in this group myself: we'd go there every weekend and help the peasants by being present when they were plowing the fields or picking olives.
We sometimes get the feeling that people ignore the camera, as if it simply weren't there. . .
They are really used to seeing activists with cameras. Besides, when I go to the occupied territories, I shoot with a DV camera and there's just myself shooting! It's a very small camera and it somehow doesn't look like a professional crew. So maybe I was just considered as another activist which I also am! I was both an activist and a filmmaker, really: the cameras gradually become transparent to them, unlike the soldiers who are very sensitive to the presence of cameras.
Could you tell me more about the editing process?
It's very simple: significant scenes are easily spotted. I get a rough cut very rapidly. From then on, all I do is reduce the material to what is essential to the story. The first rough cut was little more than two and a half hours. Gradually, I decided to omit certain scenes and not reedit within the scenes. The basic cut of each scene is very similar to how those scenes looked in the first cut.
Considering your previous films, how can you explain that the military let you shoot them? Aren't they aware of your approach to the Israeli army?
The military don’t know me: all the soldiers in the film are not older than 21, and most of them have never seen any of my films and definitely not recognized me. Look, Israel is a contradictory place: on the one hand, it's like an apartheid state, but on the other, it's a wonderful democracy if you are Jewish. The fact that I'm an Israeli and Jewish allows me a lot of freedom, most of the time, soldiers won't touch me even though there were times when they tried to take my camera away from me. Besides, soldiers in the occupied territories have no authority on Israeli civilians: they can't arrest me even if they think I am breaking the law. They would have to call the police to arrest me which they rarely do. . .
How can you explain that Israeli institutions have backed the film financially?
Film foundations in Israel get their money from the government, but the government doesn't interfere with their artistic decisions. They have the freedom to choose whichever film they like. This goes back to the contradictions we live in: Israel is a wonderful democracy for Jews and as a matter of fact, none of my films has ever been censored. Besides, most of my films have also been financially supported by Israel TV channels.
Do you resent being compared to Nanni Moretti or Michael Moore?
I prefer being compared to Nanni Moretti! Seriously, I've been compared to Michael Moore too many times, and I'm pretty sure the comparison is only superficial. Indeed, what happens to his character in his films is very different from what happens to my character in my own: from the start, his character doesn't go through any process at all, while my character experiences big changes from the beginning to the very end. When I go out there to shoot a film, I have a vague idea about what I intend to do, but I let my character become a leader for the viewer and a dramatic character that has to tackle the problems raised in the film and relate to them.