What an absurd situation! I am in Brazil for the “It’s All True” documentary festival and walk from the hotel’s non-stop flow of CNN news to watch Avi Mograbi´s August in the cinema across the street. I have seen the film before on VHS, but now Mograbi’s face is to fill the big screen of the 500 seat cinema. Will it work? Will I get just as emotionally involved as the first time I saw the film? I have just seen the CNN windup on Colin Powell’s diplomatic mission to the Middle East with a new discussion on whether the intrusion of Israeli forces into the Jenin refugee camp in search of suicide bombers was in fact a massacre of civilians. Where does all this violence come from?
I would not say that Avi Mograbi answers this question in his intelligent, tragicomic reflection on what it means to live in Israel. But in this third part of what could be considered a trilogy (the other two films are How I learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Ariek Sharon and Happy Birthday Mr. Mograbi), he perfects his personal style to a state of uneasiness that leaves you in a constant state of emotional agitation. He brings you to a point of embarrassment on behalf of the film’s characters including himself.
That is basically what I appreciate about Mograbi as a director: he does not spare himself. And if this film is about the mental state of a country that is completely submerged in aggression, tension, fear and paranoia, Mograbi must certainly include Mograbi (and his wife, but that is another story I will get back to).
August is a month Avi Mograbi hates. Thirty-one days of unbearable heat where nothing much happens. And yet he senses small frictions in the street life as he wanders around with his small camera. A woman tries to help a drunk or drugged man back on his feet. Nobody helps the woman. People shout at each other on a street corner. A normal traffic situation.
We can easily imagine these situations developing on a hot summer’s day, can’t we? But as the film proceeds, Mograbi gradually takes us from situations that could happen anywhere to situations in a country on its way to war: children in the street saying nasty things about Arabs or Arabs telling the director to go film the niggers who stole their jobs. Especially the many incidents where Mograbi attends demonstrations or gatherings and is constantly asked why he is filming, for whom and what purpose bear witness to a permanent atmosphere of suspicion. The soldiers at the Lebanese border won’t let him film because they say he is attracting attention. Mograbi argues with them, ’When the television crew was here yesterday there was no problem.’ He stays and films a boy on the other side of the wired fence. He continues until the camera is hit by a stone from the boy. This is just one of several scenes that reach the limit of embarrassment and infringe on Mograbi’s own patience.
The reason the film evokes such strong reactions has to do with the time for reflection and laughter that Mograbi has incorporated into his personal narrative structure. As in his previous films, the wife, the head of the family, constantly criticizes him. Mograbi plays the role of the wife himself, dressed with a towel on his head, as he also plays the role of the impatient producer Ronny who has asked him – Mograbi – to make a film about the wife of Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein who years ago entered a mosque and killed 29 Arabs. This adds another element to the film and illustrates what fear and anger can do to people. Furthermore, it works as a meta-level of the film that leads the discussion about what a politically committed filmmaker should film when the country is at war.
Maybe it is equally a question of how to film. Mograbi gives his response by introducing the element of comedy. He talks directly to the camera and puts suntan oil on his nose while telling us about the problems he has with his wife, who constantly accuses him of not doing the right thing. “Go and film violence,” she says, and luckily he follows her advice. We are invited to laugh at these completely dilettantish scenes, and laughter makes space for a kind of reflection reminiscent of Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht. The situation is desperate, Avi Mograbi’s film is desperate; he does not come up with easy solutions or concluding remarks; the end of the film is an orgiastic cry of joy and despair at the same time.
For me there is only one conclusion: Avi Mograbi is the most important political filmmaker today. He invests himself and lets us share his feelings about being an Israeli citizen and filmmaker at the centre of the turmoil.