Gadfly in the Holy Land: the Critical Cinema of Avi Mograbi

An overview of the paradoxical, socially engaged, and deeply independent Israeli filmmaker, whose latest documentary is "Between Fences."
Michael Sicinski

Avi Mograbi's Between Fences (2016) is showing on MUBI from March 17 - April 16, 2017 as a Special Discovery.

Between Fences

In a bare room, two seated men pretend to offer a deal to a third. They will give the man 2,000 shekels and a passport if he agrees to leave Israel and go to back to Africa. “Your brothers don’t get it,” the boss says. “They’re stupid, but you look smart.” The man listening to the deal, a Sudanese refugee, insists that he must stay in Israel for his own safety. The two men, who are revealed through context to be border patrol agents, up the ante to 3,000 shekels. But the catch is, if the man stays in Israel he will go to Saharonim, a prison-like detention center for an unspecified period of time—“1, 2, 3 years in jail.”  

As the negotiation wears on, the border agents threaten him with one year, then two, unless he signs to waive his claim to Israeli asylum. When the young man agrees out of fear of incarceration, the border guards exclaim, “Mazel tov! He is going back! We are protecting our country!” The head border patrol agent tells the refugee that he will deposit 2,000 shekels in his account and provide him with a passport to Rwanda. 

Once the man is out of earshot, the agent tells his assistant to make sure that from Rwanda, the man is sent right back to Sudan. Welcome to Between Fences, the latest film from Avi Mograbi, in which a new chapter in Israel’s political history is dramatized by the weak and the vulnerable, the same global citizens in whom Israelis ought to recognize themselves.


How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon

Avi Mograbi is a paradoxical filmmaker. Born to a well-heeled Israeli family, he is an unwavering leftist and one of his country’s most consistent internal critics. His name, Mograbi, is synonymous with the glamour of the cinema for most Israelis, given his family history.1 But his films are deeply independent affairs, often displaying the roughness of television journalism. Mograbi is a socially engaged filmmaker, and yet he often plays the role of a curious but blinkered bourgeois, speaking directly to his audience as the flustered, put-upon mensch, if not an outright schlemiel.

There are certain constants across Mograbi’s work. They include a basic, almost instinctual resistance to militarism, a deep sympathy to the Palestinian cause, and an abiding belief in the cynicism, if not outright villainy, of Israel’s right-wing Likud party. Likudites are the hardline, anti-two-state conservatives led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, someone who has crept into the background of a number of Mograbi productions. But, as if to display his own shared culpability for the situation of Palestine, Mograbi produced the 1997 essay film How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon.

As with several of Mograbi’s early essay works, he plays “Avi,” a self-reflexive filmmaker character not unlike Nanni Moretti’s or Ross McElwee’s diaristic alter egos. We watch him struggle to come to terms with the very idea of documenting Ariel Sharon, a lion of the right-wing known for, among other things, tacitly allowing the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon.2 But as Mograbi begins tailing Sharon, he eventually insinuates himself into the man’s political entourage, becoming friendlier and friendlier with a man who had not so long ago exemplified everything in Israeli political and military culture that Mograbi stands against. By the end of the film, “Avi’s” wife and kids have left him out of disgust.  

In How I Learned to Overcome My Fear, Mograbi provides an object lesson in the seductiveness of power, the way that outsiders can be flattered by the simple offer of fraternity. In his own feckless, petit-bourgeois way, Mograbi is standing in allegorically for the post-Rabin Israeli left, too shaken to defend its principles and perhaps too mired in the practices of conciliatory liberalism to ever achieve its historical goals. Mograbi’s lesson may speak more directly to those living under parliamentary governments, where to some extent, coalition building requires the art of seduction.

In the U.S., more is to be gained by vilifying your opponent, as the radical right-wingers do in the final scene of Mograbi’s film. At a rally (to which Sharon pointedly does not show up), Orthodox rock singers wail, “up with Bibi,” and “down with the creep” (Shimon Peres). But we would be foolish to think that Mograbi’s profile in cowardice has nothing to do with our own situation. Whatever else could be said about Sharon, he was undoubtedly a bully who was instrumental in Israel’s policy of building in the Occupied Territories. And there is a certain psychological pull that bullies exert, a desire to be part of their inner circle rather than stuck jabbing at them from the outside. How else to explain the ascendency of Donald Trump? Both his rank-and-file base of constituents and his cadre of GOP minions are eager to overcome their fear—of illegality, of constitutional crisis, of the ceding of sovereignty – and love this sputtering sack of blubber. After all, “he seems strong.” 


Avenge But One of My Two Eyes

2005’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes remains Mograbi’s best-known film to date. A Cannes world premiere afforded it the highest profile of any of Mograbi’s films up to that point, and this is perhaps with good reason. It marks a turning point of sorts, away from the direct address of works like the Ariel Sharon film, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi (1999), and August (2002), and toward a more traditional documentary form, composed primarily of social observation. Most of the film investigates the various stories that Israelis tell themselves—and more pointedly, their children—about the Zionist project.   

The title of the film comes from the story of Samson, who we learn is valorized in Israeli teachings as a mythic Jewish superhero. Having killed thousands of philistines before having his magic locks shorn from his head, Samson is blinded and rendered powerless. But he prays to God for one more feat of strength, with which he brings the temple walls down upon himself and thousands more philistines than he had ever managed to kill before. Mograbi shows us discussions among schoolchildren, who are taught the value of “dying with the philistines,” without recognizing exactly how this sentiment matches that of any given suicide bomber. 

Likewise, we repeatedly visit the Masada, the hillside temple of the Zealots, those who chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. Again, students are asked to ponder the sacrifices of their forefathers and foremothers, to place themselves in their situation and choose what they would have done. Although the students answer of their own free will, it is clear that there are two “right” answers: commit suicide, or die fighting.

Avenge is filled out with the testimony of Mograbi’s Palestinian friend Shredi Jabarin, whose voice we hear over the course of a long telephone conversation with the director. These segments have the most in common with Mograbi’s previous self-disclosing essay works, but the tenor and purpose is fundamentally different. Once again, Mograbi positions himself front and center, but he’s not employing a persona or playing the faux naïf. Instead, he struggles with hearing Jabarin explain that life under Israeli occupation is worse than death. Mograbi’s role is that of a listener, and sometimes a reluctant witness forced to testify on his country's behalf.

With Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, Mograbi’s point is clear enough. Israelis are told that Palestinians, and Arabs in general, place no value on human life. And yet, the insistence on locating national identity within the Samson myth and the story of the Zealots paints a damning portrait of Zionism as a contemporary death cult. Militarism, and the almost passionate desire for martyrdom, appears to characterize Israeli masculinity in particular, especially as promoted by Likud and other right-wing factions. So when Mograbi argues with soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint, who are preventing some Arab children from returning home from school, they see the filmmaker not only as unmanly, but somehow not Jewish enough. He is regarded as an internal enemy. 


The Israeli Army as a proving ground for appropriate masculine behavior and proper citizenship is interrogated in even more depth in Mograbi’s subsequent film Z32 (2008). In this highly unconventional film, Mograbi features a soldier from an elite army squad who was one of several men sent on a “revenge mission” to kill several Palestinian police officers in the Occupied Territories. The men killed were unarmed, and they had no connection whatsoever to the attack on Israeli military personnel for which the killing was retaliation. The soldier, whose identity is obscured with various computerized masking effects, discusses the film’s central crisis with his girlfriend: “Am I a murderer?”

As he continues narrating the events of his story, one thing becomes clear. This elite unit had been training for months and seeing no action, and by the solder’s own admission they were antsy to get out and kill. When the order came they were thrilled, and during the operation they riddled each of their human targets with gunfire, giving little thought to the rules of engagement. When the soldier’s girlfriend asks if he feels any guilt, he pointedly replies, “not in the classical sense of the word.”

Meanwhile, Mograbi has assembled a chamber ensemble in his living room. His customary mode of direct address is now delivered as cabaret, a sort of Threepenny Opera-esque song cycle about his own role in aiding and abetting a murderer by making the film in the first place. In truth, Z32 is not entirely successful, since despite Mograbi’s sincerity the musical aspect ushers an implied glibness into the proceedings. This is all the more problematic given that such killings are so commonplace in Israel / Palestine that the soldier's guilt in a judicial sense is not even the question here. Instead, he is only podering whether or not to feel bad. But the many fans of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing owe it to themselves to see Z32, a film that covers similar ground on a narrower front.


Between Fences

Between Fences

It is clear enough that the sycophantism Mograbi displays in Arik Sharon, together with the worship of power and death in Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, collude in Israel to produce the kind of warped masculine subject on display in Z32. But by the time we arrive at Between Fences, the armed guards and naked displays of violence are largely absent. In fact, so are the Palestinians. Thanks to the global refugee crisis, Israel now has a new population to be afraid of, and in treating this vital topic, Mograbi has made a film like nothing he has done before.

Between Fences takes place inside the HOLOT detention center, near the border between Israel and Egypt. It is a holding pen for refugees, or as they are frequently called in official Israeli military argot, “infiltrators.” These men are overwhelmingly Eritrean or Sudanese, having fled the violent dictatorship in the former case, the ongoing civil war in the latter. The fact that these men are Muslim seems to have something to do with their less-than-evenhanded treatment by the Israeli government and border patrol, although to hear these men describe their own experiences, the situation is a bit more basic. As one man puts it, “they don’t want any more blacks.” 

Mograbi is present in Between Fences, but not in the manner to which we’ve grown accustomed. He and theater director Chen Alon of Tel Aviv University have entered HOLOT as facilitators of a voluntary theater workshop for detention center inmates. (The workshops, we learn at the end of the film, will evolve into an actual theater company.3) Approximately 80% of the film takes place inside one medium-sized rehearsal room, notable for its lack of furniture and the Twombly-like scribbles across its back wall. In this space, various members of the makeshift acting troupe engage in contact improv, movement exercises, and role-playing experiments based on experiences both in their home countries and since arriving in Israel.  

In fundamental philosophy and aesthetic orientation, Between Fences has quite a lot in common with the Taviani brothers’ 2012 film Caesar Must Die, which documented a production of Julius Caesar inside Rome’s Rebibbia prison. But Mograbi and Alon are dealing with victims, not criminals, and this necessarily changes the tenor of the performances. For example, in one segment, we see Eritrean men re-enact their roles in the military, where they were forced to build mansions for rich, politically connected citizens. Those who refused, on grounds that this was an exploitation of their status as public servants, were either arrested or shot. 

In the most pointed segments of Between Fences, the refugees recreate their treatment at the hands of the Israelis, and although the situation has changed, the pattern is strikingly familiar. Mograbi and Alon have some of the men play soldiers or border guards, wielding their authority over their fellow inmates as a kind of miniature Stanford experiment. They pretend to hold them at gunpoint, yell at them to “go back where you came from,” “we don’t want you,” turn them away at the border, and in one instance, allow the women entry into Israel while turning the men away.

But more often than not, the refugees are not interested in taking on these power roles, at least not in any sort of aggressive, Method-acting sort of way. They want to show what has happened to them in a more basic, declarative manner. As mentioned before, Between Fences is unique in Mograbi’s filmography in that Israeli power is discussed but its enforcers are not directly shown. Soldiers and politicians are mostly absent from the scene. This is because to some extent the theater process renders them unnecessary.

There is a slight Foucaultian aspect to these exercises. These men have been so subjected to state discipline that it has been inscribed upon their bodies. And yet, they themselves do not embody it. It remains a sign-system for them to manipulate, something they themselves keep at a distance. Although the performance we see in Between Fences would not be considered Brechtian, strictly speaking, they never lapse into full-bodied belief. These men, whom the state of Israel deems a security risk, are reluctant even to tap into the well-earned reserves of catharsis when representing the violence and discrimination to which they themselves have been subjected by Israeli forces. 

At the end of the film, Mograbi informs us that Israel’s High Court has placed a one-year limit on the detention of refugees. Since the men seen in Between Fences had all been in HOLOT anywhere from 12 to 19 months, all have since been released. And yet, the detention center is at capacity once again, with 3,360 detainees waiting out their requisite year of imprisonment—Israel’s own version of “extreme vetting.”

And as Between Fences concludes, it prompts us as well to consider Mograbi’s future, and just how much his cinema has changed. Gone are the face-to-the-camera sit-downs, the direct address in which “Avi” plays up his guilelessness. If for the most part the filmmaker stays out of the way in this film, it would appear to be because he understands that there is very little that his sardonic presence could add. But Mograbi is also no doubt aware that the political situation in Israel is simultaneously evolving and at a stalemate. What does it mean that the Palestinians are no closer to having independence in 2017, and there is an entirely new population under the thumb of the state? While this could lead to a sense of futility, Mograbi has clearly taken it as a cue to reinvent his method. He is listening, and learning. And among the refugees at HOLOT, he has found a reinvigorated global humanism.



1. The Mograbi Cinema in downtown Tel Aviv, founded by a distant relative of Avi, was probably Israel’s most famous movie palace, having opened in 1930. It was the site of one of the largest celebrations following the 1948 partition, and remained a vital national landmark until its demolition in the 1990s.  

2. Sharon was serving as Israel’s Defense Minister at the time. The events of the Sabra and Shatila massacre were later dramatized in Ari Folman’s 2008 animated drama Waltz With Bashir.

3. Under Alon’s guidance, and upon the release of the asylum-seekers involved, the group was formalized into the Legislative Theater of HOLOT. As of Between Fences’ release in early 2016, they were performing across Israel.

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