“What is possible?” Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi asks a Palestinian friend over the telephone about halfway into his documentary, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes.
The film, shot in low-budget cinema-verité style, is punctuated throughout with scenes from the same lengthy phone conversation, in which the two men talk about life, death, and the fate of the Middle East.
In order to do so, Mograbi takes his camera to military checkpoints, often confronting soldiers face-to-face. He follows groups of Palestinian civilians in an attempt to document the border the way they experience it. The encounters caught on film range from curt and tense to humiliating and abusive.
The film works in uncomfortable contrasts and parallels, cutting from these encounters to scenes of Israelis visiting historical sites and narrating parts of their history. A startling perspective comes out through this kind of immediate juxtaposition, as characters on both sides tend to echo each other’s words.
“Let our wives die before they are abused,” says an Israeli tour guide, recounting the story of the Masada. “Let our sons die before they taste slavery. And preserve ourselves in freedom as a funeral monument.”
Over the phone, Mograbi’s friend expresses a similar sentiment: he is tired of living as a slave in his own country, with someone else controlling the power and resources. This, he says, leaves him with few options. “I will go out now and I will throw stones at the tank and let them kill me!”
Through these juxtapositions, the director investigates the strange way empathy is created and portioned out in conflict situations, particularly through the narration of history and the role that it plays in shaping identity. Empathy with history is actively cultivated in role-playing activities. Groups of kids scream “Romans, we will not surrender!” off the top of the Masada; a man tells a group of British tourists to close their eyes and picture how it might feel to jump off the cliff as the Romans advanced.
Shifting focus back to various military checkpoints, Mograbi also looks at the way that empathy is denied to people staring each other in the face. In one scene a sick woman is blocked from crossing in order to get to a hospital, despite her family’s pleas that she is bleeding. The guards turn two ambulances away, giving orders through megaphones without getting out of their armoured jeep.
The pain that runs deep among his own countrymen – the kind that makes critical detachment sometimes untenable – also comes through in Mograbi’s film, albeit briefly. “Twenty-one thousand people have died in Israel’s wars,” says the man at Masada. “Unforunately, there are nine in my family alone…. My sister didn’t live to see the son she carried in her womb for six months as they threw a Molotov cocktail at her.”
Throughout the documentary, it becomes clearer that everyone’s vision is limited.
The people at the checkpoint see faceless armoured tanks; the man addressing the students sees his dead family members; the man on the phone sees the people around him starving, the violence pushing into their everyday lives. “It’s very normal to be radical around here,” he says. “It’s in my bedroom. It’s in everyone’s bedrooms.”
Mograbi asks some hard questions in this polarizing film, and came away with an Amnesty International DOEN Award for it, at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2006.
It’s disappointing, however, that after visiting these kinds of complexities the film culminates in a shouting match, particularly compared to the more constructive activism of a film like Encounterpoint. This Israeli/Palestinian/North American collaboration focuses on the efforts of peace activists on both sides, many of them bereaved parents who still maintain the belief that transcending history and identity to work toward reconciliation isn’t an impossibly idealistic goal.
When Mograbi shouts at a border guard to “Grow up!” the soldier replies, “I hope you have a son who hears what you’re saying right now,” pointing to the fact that all young people have to join the army, and aren’t left with much of a choice.
“Where did you people come from?” Mograbi shouts. It seems that’s a question he’s been trying to answer. Ninety minutes in, he’s still at a loss.
Avenge But One of My Two Eyes will be screened by Cinema Politica on Tuesday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Arts Building, Room 145.