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‘The First 54 Years’ Director Avi Mograbi on Danger, Irony and Exhausting Himself

·3 min read

Since 2004, Israeli documentary filmmaker Avi Mograbi has sat on the board of Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower organization that collects and publishes testimonies about life in the Occupied Territories, all while exploring similar subjects via oft-irreverent films. And as Mograbi’s still ongoing festival tour with his latest film, “The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation” – which began in Berlin and took him from Nyon to New York and now Turin – goes to show, Mograbi has no doubt hewed a more welcoming path following one pursuit than the other.

“Breaking the Silence is probably the most hated organization in Israel,” Mograbi said this week at a Torino Film Festival masterclass. “The organization has suffered a lot of attacks that started from the Prime Minister on down. Right-wing groups infiltrated our organization; people wore body cams to capture our supposedly illegal and traitorous activities. The Israeli parliament already legislated two [adversarial] laws known as the Breaking the Silence laws, with the newspapers calling them as such.”

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“Thankfully no one has been hurt or physically attacked,” he continued. “Still, when my film was about to be released I placed a surveillance camera outside my home. And – this is the most humiliating thing – nothing happened,” he added with a wry smile.

Those attending the talk in Turin could hear in those words that same gallows humor – that similar mix of outrage and impishness – that has become a hallmark of Mograbi’s work. “I definitely feel more at home in the playground of irony than in a more serious [register],” he explained. “You don’t have to be ironic in order to see what’s already there: When a state founded by and for refugees becomes the oppressor of another people, that’s an irony. At the same time, some people have the tendency to see these kinds of ironic clashes more than others… I would feel less comfortable just lecturing [about it.]”

“The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation” - Credit: Courtesy of Torino Film Festival
“The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation” - Credit: Courtesy of Torino Film Festival

Courtesy of Torino Film Festival

Instead, the director turned inward, crafting a tone of comic self-reflection that animated breakout films like the Cannes-selected “Avenge But One of my Two Eyes,” the Venice Horizons title “Z23,” and this year’s “The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation,” which premiered in Berlin.

“I have the tendency to participate in my films, and to turn them into their own making-of,” he explained. “So that the film includes not only the story I wanted to tell, but also all the dilemmas and complications – whether cinematographic or ethical – that came along with the decision to meet reality at this corner.”

The filmmaker has often used a certain degree of artifice to better capture the complexities of certain realities, using theater workshops, direct addresses, stagey recreations and, in the case of “Z23” – which followed a former soldier coming to terms with the blood he spilled – the director quite literally burst out in song.

“I had became an accomplice, I provided shelter to an assassin within my film,” Mograbi said. “I had a lot of dilemmas. What was my role in making the film, in collecting those testimonies? What was my role as part of Breaking the Silence, as a person of culture, as a political activist? I needed to address those issues, so I decided to sing the blues – to sing the documentary-maker’s blues.”

Today he finds himself hitting a different set of notes. “In the last few months I’ve been travelling like crazy, as much as COVID allows,” he told Variety. “I’m totally exhausted, travelling from one place to another with short stays at home. This is what my life is right now: Q&As, masterclasses, analyzing my own work, which can be very tiring. Sometimes you find yourself totally exhausted from your own stupidities.”

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