For about a decade he has been making documentaries that have travelled all over the world. The documentaries have given Mograbi a reputation as one of today’s most promising, innovative, political filmmakers. He deliberately mixes fiction and proper documentation in a personal style exuding humour and irony that has confused many. TUE STEEN MÛLLER spoke to Avi Mograbi in Tel Aviv a few weeks after Sharon’s victory.
What is real, what is wrong? Is this a dream or a real nightmare? Hard to tell in a society like Israel’s. Five years after Mograbi made a film on Arik Sharon, the latter became Prime Minister of a country that is in constant conflict. The film was given new, surprising relevance since Mograbi has received phone calls from people who assume that he knows Sharon very well: “So your friend is now the prime minister.”
TSM: How I learned to Overcome My fear and Love Arik Sharon!, the title invites you to make such an assumption. Give us the background, please.
AM: When I went out to make this film, I thought that I was going to make a real harsh political documentary. I was obsessed with Arik Sharon. In 1983 I sat in jail for refusing to serve as a soldier in the war in Lebanon. The army did not want to get into the political and moral questions, so they just jailed me and many others for not obeying orders. I was at that time already a reserve soldier. I had taken a close look at what Sharon had been doing for years – especially the chain of settlements he set up, which for me is the biggest obstacle to peace right now, because they are built within the occupied territories and are cutting the West Bank into pieces. In 1977 the Likud party came to power. Sharon became minister of agriculture – but in reality he changed the post into minister of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. He found out how to confiscate land in these areas. The idea was of course to make sure that the land would never be returned to the Palestinians and to make their lives unbearable. He would claim that he did so in order to bring security.
But the style of the film is quite unconventional?
In the beginning I wanted to make a straightforward documentary. I thought about it for a long time, until the election in 1996 after the assassination of Rabin, when Shimon Peres ran against Netanyahu. I imagined that Sharon would immediately know who I was and where I came from. I decided to use the campaign to get close to him. I hoped that I would find the monster in him that I thought was there, but this did not happen. What you see in the beginning of the film is completely true. I made an enormous number of phone calls trying to get his approval of giving me his campaign schedule, which he refused. So what you see is a lot of documentary stuff that I have filmed with a character, myself, framing the whole thing, being left by his wife, because “he who forgets Sabra and Shatila – his wife shall leave him”. (Sabra and Shatila are the two refugee camps in Lebanon, where massacres of Palestinians took place in 1983. Sharon was officially declared to be indirectly responsible for the massacres and was forced to resign his post as minister of defence, ed.). The idea of telling this fabricated story – my wife has not left me! – combined with ‘real’ material shot in a documentary manner, evolved along the road, when the shootings of Sharon were already in progress.
How did you reach this style? It is a long way from The Reconstruction (1994) about the murder case of Danny Katz, a Jewish boy, to the film on Sharon three years later?
The Danny Katz film is a very important part of my work. It is such a strict and serious story about five Arabs who are accused of having committed a crime, which they may never have been close to. I used much energy in telling the truth and not letting the manipulation take over. It is a story about life and death, where I took many measures to avoid saying something that I was not 100% sure of. It took me some time to understand that whatever efforts I had performed, the amount of manipulation is enormous. The audience can only count on your integrity. In such a huge case, as the one about Danny Katz with thousands of papers and six hours of police reconstruction material, you put it all into a one hour film. Whatever I did, I was manipulating. So in the Sharon film, I decided to put myself into the film. It all developed. I had an idea about where I was going, which was somewhere else, so it turned out to be a totally different film. Only when I finished the documentary stuff in the film and had edited it on my computer, did I start writing the framework, the full script. I recorded it in my living room, edited it on my computer. I showed it to my wife, who is my best critic, and discussed it with her. And here I invented the idea of my wife leaving me. My wife does not appear in the film, but her voice represents the moral backbone of it all. I asked her permission to turn the story like that, and she was happy to leave me!
Was it out of frustration?
Yes, because the more I shot, the more I found out that I was his toy and that he was manipulating me with his kindness and friendliness. He was simply giving me the journalist treatment. On one side, he didn’t do any research on me, and on the other, he didn’t let me get close. I started to appear again and again, and I surprised him a couple of times. He started to recognise me and forgot about checking me. If so, they would have found that I am what is called a radical leftist in this country. He got nicer and nicer, and he did not appear as a monster. I started dreaming and I was terrified.
So the dreams in the film are real?
Well not really, but I dreamt a lot, and I was very active psychologically. I was very stimulated and it took some time to understand that I would never find anything on Sharon. It was also the quietest election campaign ever, because it was right after the killing of Rabin, and everybody was into lighting candles being afraid of violence. I understood that what I saw was how the charisma of a leader worked. I didn’t forget Shaba and Shatila for one moment. I was taken by the big bear’s hug. I had never ever imagined that my film would become so relevant in a strict documentary sense six years later.
Have people interpreted the film as promotion for Sharon?
Many have seen it as a proper documentary and believe that the story about my wife and me is true. It was funny because people I met in the street starting talking to me and asked me, “What happened to your wife?” After the TV screening it took some time for me to understand that people who stopped me in the street were not necessarily people that I knew. I had to warn my kids that in school people might say that their parents had separated. They took it bravely.
The scene in the Sharon film where you are dancing is a very strong expression of despair.
This election rally was shot two days before the election. The concert was organised by this extreme religious group, and Sharon was supposed to come and talk, which he did not do. I knew this crazy band from beforehand – the guitarist is very good and I knew him from before he became religious and ‘saw the light’. The roughness of life in Israel makes people do strange things. I thought that I had had enough listening to these lyrics, the worst in years, in favour of Bibi Netanyahu. There was something in my eyes, and the cameraman saw it and then the scene developed with me dancing around with the religious people. It was a surreal situation – the combination of the rock music with the extremely religious and extremely right-wing lyrics. I let myself go.
And the dream scene with the clips of the slain bodies in Shaba and Shatilas…
… when that massacre happened this country was split into two. Sharon says in the film that it was not us, it was Arab Christians killing Arab Muslims! We were not to blame. As you know, he was held indirectly responsible for the massacre and was asked to resign by Begin, which he reluctantly did. It is amazing that for the first time we now have a real war criminal as Prime Minister.
After the Sharon film you proceed with the same style in Happy Birthday Mr. Mograbi (Reviewed in DOX#25).
It was an even more complicated structure that I chose for this film, but unlike the Sharon film, I had the fictional frame in place already from the start. This film is about a director, me, who sets out to commemorate the fifty years of Israel’s existence – and his own birthday – but ends up confused and unable to express joy and happiness because of the Palestinian dilemma. It took me a long time to understand how *Happy Birthday Mr. Mograbi could work. What happens to me usually is that during the process I suddenly understand things and am able to develop them. Sometimes things pop up by chance during the editing, as it did with this film, where the idea of letting people walk backwards came up when I was using the mouse of the computer. I was looking for something that could re-install the Palestinians in their right place. But what happened here is the same as happened with the other film: people do not want to confront the horrible dilemmas that are brought by the films. They go for the easy points – in *Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi practically no reviews mentioned the word Palestinian, when they praised the film.
Are you disappointed about this?
No, I know where I live. People do not talk straight about the big problems. They do not want to touch upon the refugee problem. They stay on the surface. They talk about peace all the time – but if you ask them what they mean by peace, they mean security and safety. They think that if we give them, mark the phrase “give them”, their own state, everything will be fine and we don’t really have any responsibility. We don’t really give a shit, we can forget about them. This is what we offered Arafat and look what we got back!
The drama is there just outside the window, and you talk seriously about your films. Yet humour is a very strong element in the style. Why?
I can’t avoid it! And I have a feeling that when you do straight documentaries you lose the audience because people are not interested in proper political discussions. In my two last films, I indulge the audience, as in a drama, and they watch a political film without knowing it. I am not sure that I can do anything else at present. I think you should try to keep your audience. The problems in this country are so deep and profound that if you make this straightforward political film you lose the audience, because people here are experts in avoiding dealing with big problems. Some even say they don’t read newspapers. How can you not read newspapers in Israel?
Let us leave politics for a while and go to the other big issue in your work – your wife! The video At the Back (2000) is about her and you! Is it a love story?
I think so. In the other films you hear about but don’t see my wife. Here you see her, at least from behind. The film started by chance when we were on a tourist tour in Japan. As usual she walks in front with the book and the map, and I walk behind her. We do that all the time. That’s the way… I enjoy following her immensely. I had this DV camera and started shooting her from behind. In the beginning she thought that I would stop that very soon, but when I didn’t, she got annoyed. And then it became funny because I would hide the camera whenever she turned around. When I started the editing, the concept was to leave everything in the film that does not have her face in the picture, and the result is that you only see her from behind. I like that this film, as the others, is also a so-called “in-between”, which does not fit into a genre.
Back to politics…
Yes, the politicians keep my career going. And I am a very committed person. Who fears what is going to happen. I think that it is going to explode in our faces. I can’t blame the Palestinians. And I can’t condemn their terrorist acts. I would have done worse things if I had the courage. So I sit here and wait for everything to fall on me. Because I will not fight back. I can’t see a way out of this.