Avenge But One of My Eyes: Mograbi’s Israeli Docu (Nekam Achat Mishtey Eynay)

Past and present, history and myth collide in Israeli Avi Mograbi’s provocative documentary, “Avenge but One of My Eyes” (in Hebrew, “Nekam Achat Mishtey Eynay”). In his film, which is likely to upset and divide Jewish and Israeli viewers, Mograbi draws ambitious, controversial parallels between the biblical story of Samson and historical tale of Masada on the one hand, and the plight of Palestinian who have been subjugated to Israel’s military occupation since 1967.

“Avenge but One of My Eyes, which premiered in Cannes out of competition, and is shown this week at the NY Film Fest, is one of the most provocative treatises to have been made by an Israeli, or Palestinian for that matter, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, it serves as a relevant companion piece to Hany Abu-Asad’s “Paradise Now,” about suicide bombers, which is also playing at the NY Film Fest. I highly recommend both films, which belong to a cycle of critical, personal, self-reflexive films on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. (See Film Comment).

Mograbi shows how Israel as a modern state has taken episodes from its ancient history and has reconstructed them as potent national myths to fit into its current mythology and ideology. Images never speak for themselves; they depend on the interpretive paradigm in which they are presented, and the political context against which they unfold. Another filmmaker, Israeli or Palestinian, could have taken the same episodes and imbue them with totally different meanings.

As Mograbi himself noted in Cannes: “There’s no bigger fiction that the concept of documentary film as an objective representation of truth. Even if the material collected does contain slices of life, once you take these slices, cut them up again on the editing table and put them together in a different manner, the outcome is no longer a slice of life, but life as perceived by the filmmaker, which is not necessarily an impartial reflection of reality.

Mograbi is not concerned with objectivity, impartiality, or detachment in his own work. With courage and commitment to pacifist values, he deconstructs some of the most controversial cases in Jewish history, going back to the Biblical tale of Samson and Masada.

The narrative unfolds as one long, intimate phone conversation between Mograbi and a Palestinian friend, who complains about the mistreatment of Palestinians due to the Israeli army’s intrusion into his daily life, which has become intolerable. The Palestinian goes as far as to contend that this might be the reason why suicide bombers have multiplied.

Mograbi explores Israel’s rituals dedicated to the memory of their consecrated national heroes, the Masada zealots who committed suicide rather than live under Roman occupation. Samson asked God to let him avenge but one of his two eyes by bringing down the Philistine temple on himself and the jeering crowds who had imprisoned and blinded him

Mograbi’s unblinking cameras follow the inhuman treatment of Palestinian peasants by the Israeli occupation and looks at how they are driven to despair and frustration in which no act of protest is too extreme or radical. Footage of dialogue between a guard with a deliveryman that visualizes the physical and social barriers to communication is interspersed by telephone conversations in which Mograbi’s Palestinian friend confesses his conflicted feelings about life and death.

School kids and an old woman are then shown waiting for hours to cross checkpoints (the site of other Palestinian and Israeli films, such as the recent work from Amos Gitai). Though angry, the Palestinians seem unintimidated by the bullying approach of the Israeli soldiers.

Intercut throughout the film are images of American tourists visiting Masada, where in 72 A.D., 960 Jews committed suicide (an act that’s not sanctioned by tradition), rather than surrender and be enslaved to the brutal Roman conquerors. Coached by zealous Israeli guides, the tourists relive this collective suicide. The guides intend to stoke the fires of patriotism toward the state of Israel, but the film makes a very different connection to the Palestinians’ humiliation.

There’s similar setup with young students, who know by heart the story of Samson and how he brought the temple crashing down on the heads of his tormentors. Here again, Mograbi’s montage contests their nationalist reading of the tale turning it completely on its head.

Mograbi presents his homeland’s treatment of its Muslim neighbors at border checkpoints as oppressive acts of humiliating subjugation comparable to the Romans’ strategy to enclose the Jews within a high wall on the Masada hilltop, just as he depicts their exaltation of Samson’s martyrdom as similar to Palestinians’ belief in suicide bombing as a reasonable means of revolt.

The film’s most incendiary scene describes a rock concert featuring Kahana, who sings about Samson to excite and ignite a crowd of enthusiastic religious extremists. Hence, to the blind Samson’s verse, “Avenge But One of My Two Eyes,” which explains the film’s title, he unabashedly adds, “on Palestine, With Revenge, Revenge, Revenge.”

Instances of army hostility around the security fences are contrasted with snippets of devout Jewish teachers and tour guides reciting the country’s bloody legends about national freedom, a device aims at showing how the past continues to fuel the region’s current acts of violence

A case could be made that, unlike the actions taken by Palestinian bombers on buses, in markets and nightclubs, which involve the killing of innocent civilians, the Jewish cases of violence, both Samson and Masada, didn’t engage innocent bystanders, such as women and children, and were addressed directly against their oppressors.

Scenes of Israeli soldiers preventing Palestinian passage to Jerusalem illustrate the callousness of Sharon’s policies by neglecting the contexts for the military’s behavior in situations involving an injured woman who’s refused access to a hospital, or a group of young students denied passage through the border.

Some will find the very juxtaposition of Israel’s celebrated myths of suicides with the country’s current military regime to be ironic and self-serving. Others may see the film as a one-sided treatise in which the Israelis (both government and military) are the brutish villains and the Palestinians their heroically innocent victims.

That said, Mograbi should be commended not just for making the film, but for avoiding unnecessary voice-overs or superfluous commentary, which often accompany political documentaries; Michael Moore’s incendiary “Fahrenheit 9/11” is prime example of this strategy.

The only members who protest loudly are liberal Israelis like the filmmaker himself. In a revelatory sequence, Mograbi provokes some Israeli soldiers by screaming at them “Grow Up!” Is Mograbi naive Is he just letting steam off I don’t think so. Having seen his previous work, I would like to point out that he’s one of the fiercest, most independent of Israeli filmmakers.

Born and educated in Israel, Mograbi studied philosophy and art before pursuing a film career. He first tried his hand at experimental filmmaking before switching to more personal documentaries. Mograbi’s work is reflexive and polemical in the way that Godard’s film-essays, particularly during his Mao and Vietnam era, were.

A militant peace activist, Mograbi was sent to jail by the Israeli army in 1982, when he refused to serve in Lebanon. Mograbi’s son underwent similar fate, during his military service, when he would not serve in the occupied territories in the West Bank. Mograbi, who has tried to participate in every protest demonstration against the government, sees his films as natural extension of his personal beliefs, claiming: The things I care about in everyday life are the things that interest me in my films.”

One doesn’t expect solutions from any film to such inflammatory conflicts as the endlessly violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What we expect are provocative ideas and new ways of looking at such conflicts. “Avenge But One of My Eyes” does provide those elements, even if they contradict our personal beliefs on the subject.