Since the 1980s, the Israeli director Avi Mograbi has been making films about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. His latest documentary, The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for A Military Occupation (2021), his most incisive film to date, alternates between three types of telling. The first consists of the footage gathered by the organization Breaking the Silence, in which former Israeli soldiers detail the many forms of land and home ex-appropriation, intimidation, torture and killing of Palestinian civilians. In addition, Mograbi himself speaks extensively on camera, in direct address, as “your guide for this abbreviated manual for military occupation,” with Israel as a “paradigmatic case.” Mograbi gets help from another narrator in voiceover who, from time to time, injects a historical timeline: the start of the occupation, in 1967, the growth of settlements, the First and Second Intifada, Oslo Accords, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, to present day. These threads are also supplemented by archival images from varied sources.
Mograbi’s cinema is often pointedly personal. This includes such diverse films as the lyrical, plangent, I Once Entered the Garden (2012), and the Boratian, performative How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon (1997). The latter, a first-person mockumentary, in which Mograbi tries to “befriend” Sharon, is a tonal prelude to The First 54 Years: in it, Mograbi delivers a scathing exposé of how a cult of personality (Sharon as a “nice guy”) plays out in popular opinion, obfuscating political reality.
Despite the wide circulation of images depicting political violence against Palestinians, the occupation continues. This continuation engenders a critical reflection for documentary cinema: Can images affect political change? The Israeli-American filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz sees a crisis in the status of the documentary image itself. In his film, The Viewing Booth (which played at the 2020 Berlinale), when a Jewish-American college student, Maia, analyzes video clips that depict violence against Palestinians, she more frequently than not questions the production (read: possible staging) of such images. In Maia’s reading, the image fails to evidence its truth, and so to persuade her. But there’s a crucial moment in the film when Alexandrowicz, who served in the Israeli army (it’s compulsory), intervenes: Maia questions the footage of a Palestinian family shaken out of their sleep by soldiers in heavy gear. Alexandrowicz pushes back; as a former soldier, he knows raid procedures, and finds the footage to be factual, the scene depicted routine.
Similar to the videos in Alexandrowicz’s film, the entries in Mograbi’s “manual” go beyond the spectacular (armed conflict, settlements) to a wider, subtler, but also more pervasive web of intimidation, recrimination and surveillance. Also similarly, The First 54 Years, to which Alexandrowicz contributed visual research, proposes an experience-embedded pushback: the images of raids, when accompanied by the testimonies of soldiers who carried them out, reclaim their veridic status. Mograbi restores the contextuality for which Susan Sontag argued in her seminal book, Regarding the Pain of Others, when she wrote that image alone did not suffice in our technological age, when manipulation is widespread, and image’s indexical status questioned.
Mograbi also deploys language as a critical tool. From didactic “guidance,” to the technical word “manual,” to calling his film, “a presentation,” as if it were a routine PowerPoint projection in an executive boardroom, Mograbi’s pointedly measured voice and word choice counterpoint the more heated tone of many political engagement documentaries. Mograbi feigns Machiavellian registers instead, when, for example, he calls land appropriation “a loftier purpose,” or the armed Palestinian resistance as “a very undesirable moment that has to be taken into account” (Mograbi uses this particular locution right before a sequence in which Israeli soldiers speak of “verifying a kill,” a tactic whose existence the Israeli Defense Forces deny). By assuming a weary, faux real-politik tone, Mograbi thus creates a distanced, semi-Brechtian framework. Seen through such a lens, political violence can’t hide behind disjointed or nebulous historical circumstance; instead, it reveals its own pernicious design.