Sat down with a DVD of Avi Mograbi's NYFF entry last night and found it an extremely pleasant surprise. With no prior knowledge of the filmmaker, and only a brief synopsis to go on, I was expecting something rote and sturdy, where a mild polemic is shoehorned into an uninteresting documentary that's barely competent formally. Instead, it's loose and unforced in a way that the current bumper crop of documentaries makes no room for, resulting in a lulling, meandering, aesthetically complete work that gradually builds into a fascinating examination of the historical underpinnings of the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian struggle without ever overtly announcing itself as such or feeling pedantic. Its mode of address, so gentle and foreign given how roughly we're often handled in contemporary documentary, called to mind Alan Clarke's Contact in which British soldiers wander for an hour through the fields of North Ireland waiting to run into the IRA.
Its footage can be roughly broken down into three categories: (1) scenes of Israeli tour guides and educators indoctrinating youth into the sites and stories of Israeli legend (most especially the stories of Samson, from where the title is derived and the mass suicides at Masada), (2) sequences of young Israeli soldiers interacting, most often callously, with Palestinians and the filmmaker himself, (3) a lengthy phone conversation between the filmmaker and a Palestinian friend captured from a mounted camera directly facing Mograbi as he cradles the receiver. The first two feature terrific handheld camerawork and some truly astonishing imagery: in two sequences Mograbi captures the central divide in question more eloquently than I've seen. In both, Palestinians attempt to cross border checkpoints, and in both are rebuffed by Israeli solders lodged firmly behind walls; of a checkpoint tower in one, and an army jeep in the other. They speak to the Palestinians via megaphones, and in the way Mograbi insistently frames the tower and jeep, he animates the inanimate as stand-ins for the soldiers who won't reveal themselves. If the events weren't so deadly serious, the sheer absurdity of their unwillingness to interact with the Palestinians on a human level (and given these young soliders' inability to do so effectively when out of their vehicles in other scenes it's not surprising that they hide) calls to mind something Monty Python might have dreamed up.
But what's perhaps most affecting for this Western viewer is witnessing how thoroughly the mythology of persecution is drummed into the minds of Israel's young (interestingly enough, the Holocaust only enters into the film near the end). For those unfamiliar, you'll be well-versed in the stories of the suicides at Masada and the legend of Samson by the end, as Mograbi continually returns to lengthy sequences of teachers and guides proselytizing to various degrees about how their duty as Israelis is to live up to their historical burdens (only one group finds the Masada incident less than heroic). The phone conversation enters in as an illuminating counterpoint: Mograbi's friend declares "when the Palestinians decide that living isn't really worth anything, then we will be in a bad place" (paraphrased slightly), and it's obvious, by that time, that the filmmaker sees the antagonists in this struggle as merely the flipsides of the same coin. Both believe themselves the persecuted and have a weight of history to back up their assertions. Sometimes I feel like the U.S. (especially in its current governmental incarnation) is too young to truly grasp the implications of its actions, but what Avenge But One of My Two Eyes suggests is that the weight of too much history can paralyze the present and dash the future.
Definitely catch this one at the NYFF or other regional festivals—my guess is that the tone, structure, and controversial theses will keep this from widespread distribution.