By Michael Chanan

august-avi-mograbi.jpgAugust, 2002

Soil, self and society: Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi’s latest feature. The film documents its own failure – the impossibility of making such a work in Israel today…

According to a recent article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Israeli filmmakers are caught in a bind. To succeed internationally they must make movies that deal with either the Holocaust or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, topics which local television prefers to avoid.[1] The article cites major documentaries on the conflict, like Asurot (Detained) by Anat Even and Ada Ushpiz, Ram Loevy’s film Haseger (Gaza: The Confinement), The Inner Tour by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, and August by Avi Mograbi – films which win prizes and get screened on television abroad, but not at home. Or, it must be said, in Britain. As a headline in The Guardian put it last October, ‘Know nothing about Afghanistan? Blame the death of the documentary.’[2]

August, subtitled A Moment Before the Eruption, won the Peace Film Award at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival. Mograbi is a kind of Israeli Nanni Moretti, a director of political satires who appears in his own films as a character loosely based on himself. In an earlier film, Happy Birthday Mr. Mograbi, he plays a man with the same name whose birthday falls on the same day as Israeli Independence Day. Setting out to celebrate the coincidence in the year of Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, the real Avi Mograbi is asked at the same time by a Palestinian filmmaker on the West Bank to shoot material for a film on the Nakba, the catastrophe, which befell the Palestinian people on the same day as Israel’s independence in 1948 – images of former Palestinian villages, places, houses, ruins, signs of life lost, or else replaced by Jewish settlers. The juxtaposition of these two strands is thrown into relief by a third storyline in which our hero is trying to sell a house he has built near the city but whose sale is proving problematic because of a discrepancy over the deeds for the land on which the house is built. The result of this manic montage of disparate elements is a caustic view of the nationalism of the Israeli jubilee which was clearly shared by the audience at the documentary film festival in Tel Aviv where I first saw it.

August has a similarly three-strand narrative, with Mograbi this time playing three different characters – himself, his wife, and his producer. Avi wants to make a film about the month of August which he sees as a metaphor for everything hateful in the State of Israel. His wife gets caught between him and his producer, who is trying to get him to make a film about Baruch Goldstein, the West Bank settler who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994. The film we’re seeing moves back and forth between Avi’s home, a series of unconvincing auditions for an actress to play the role of Goldstein’s wife, and his sorties with his camera onto the streets. Here, in a disconnected series of scenes, we become increasingly disconcerted by the aggression we glimpse on the streets which is increasingly turned on the camera itself.

Mograbi calls his film ‘a portrait of the state of Israel… [a state of] of constant anger, bitterness, suspicion’. Filming a demonstration of settlers, he’s beset by a stream of questioning about who he’s filming for; some of his interrogators interpret his reply, ‘for myself, I’m independent’, as meaning that he’s a freelance for one of the international news agencies or a stringer for the police. He encounters the same suspicious questions from a bunch of casual labourers waiting on the road side for jobs, working class North African Jews on one side of the road, Israeli Palestinians on the other, and no love lost between them. At a religious revivalist rally in a stadium where the rabbi arrives by helicopter, he is soon stopped from filming. In the Old City of Jerusalem, when he finds himself filming the arrest of a couple of Palestinian youths, he is surrounded by a bunch of hostile onlookers who complain that he didn’t film the youths when they were throwing stones; a policeman removes him from the scene. He is stopped from filming a demonstration outside the Ministry of Defence, and again in the street where a motor cavalcade for the King of Jordan is about to pass by.

Droll and at times grotesque, August plays deliberately on disparity, fragmentation, and mock-amateurishness. Systematically prevented from filming in public places where everyone always demands that he explain himself, the film documents its own failure, the impossibility of making such a work as this in Israel today, in which the very moments when the camera is forced to stop looking become the most revealing, as those who turn the camera away expose their shame. We need a lot more films like this before we shall really be well- informed about the state of the world we live in.


[1] Sara Leibovich-Dar, ‘Screen test’, Ha’aretz, 09.06.02
[2] Charlotte Raven, The Guardian, 30.10.01

Michael Chanan is a filmmaker and writer who teaches at the University of the West of England.