Avi Mograbi’s new movie, “The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation,” has not been among the offerings at any of the film festivals held in Israel this year, and so far no Israeli television channel has been willing to air it either. Nor did the nonprofit foundations that usually support documentary films want to get involved this time around, even though Mograbi is a highly-regarded longtime filmmaker whose previous films have been very successful and have been shown at dozens of film festivals around the world.

At the same time, Mograbi's film has begun making the rounds at international film festivals and earned an honorable mention at the Berlin Film Festival. But he wasn’t all that surprised by the string of rejections that the film has been met with in Israel.

“Either it’s an awful film or there’s something there that people don’t want to deal with. On the other hand, it’s a huge success abroad,” he says.

Were you given any explanation for the rejections in Israel?

“No. And I’m also not one of those types that would go and investigate. I knew that this film would raise problems.”

One reason, he surmises, is that the movie is based on soldiers’ testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence, the Israeli anti-occupation organization founded by army veterans. The group collects testimony of alleged abuses by the army in the occupied territories and troubling situations in which the soldiers have found themselves during their army service.

“Breaking the Silence isn’t among the most popular organizations in Israel, to put it mildly,” Mograbi quips. “I also have the feeling that the character I play in the film even angers leftists, due to [the character’s] cynicism, due to the fact that at its foundations, there is evil. Because even when we do bad things, we don’t want to think that we are acting out of evil. But this character doesn’t care about that. All he cares about is accomplishing the goals that he has set for himself.”

Mograbi plays a sort of expert or lecturer who explains how to carry out a military occupation in the most efficient manner. The “expert” organizes the film around the chronological development of the occupation in the territories and around several important principles that sustain it. Interwoven with testimonies of former soldiers, the Machiavellian expert’s explanations reveal how chillingly methodical the process is. The result is a deliberately didactic film, practically an instructional film. “If you want your own occupation, I’ll help you skip over some annoying parts,” Mograbi jokes.

You basically cut through the obfuscation and present the occupation almost as a mathematical formula, showing that there is nothing random about it.

“When you look at the result, you understand that it couldn’t have just happened. Someone somewhere had to sit down and think this up. I’m not saying that this manual exists in a safe at the Defense Ministry’s operations branch, but it exists in the minds of numerous people who created this thing,” he asserts.

“We like to blame the settlers, but in the Jordan Valley, they started building a string of settlements right after the Six-Day War. That line marked the border as the leaders viewed it. And for all these years, we’ve been sold the line that the civilian settlements along the Jordan are there for defensive purposes. But at the Suez Canal, when they wanted to defend there, they put the Bar-Lev Line there,” he said, referring to military fortifications, “not a bunch of civilians with tractors. And as the lecturer in the movie says, a civilian presence conveys meaning in terms of ownership of the land.”

The occupation has to be seen as part of a sequence of events involving the seizure of ownership of the land, going back to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the director claims.

“The job wasn’t completed in ’48 because the land was not emptied of Arabs. In the 1967 war, 250,000 people fled and were not allowed to return. The action all the time has been to grab land and make life difficult for those who have remained there in a way that encourages them to leave. When visitors come to me from abroad, I take them to Abu Dis, to a place that used to be the heart of a bustling neighborhood and now the security barrier runs through it,” he said referring to a West Bank town on the edge of Jerusalem.

“Getting from one side of it to the continuation of the same street on the other side, you have to drive for 40 minutes, and that’s without having to wait at checkpoints. Imagine if you had to take a detour through Holon to get to my house in central Tel Aviv from your house that’s just one kilometer from here. If you try to imagine having to live like that, it’s kind of hard not to see the evil.”

So who is the bad guy here? Who is responsible? Who’s to blame?

“It’s not one person. All the Israeli governments are responsible for it. For Israel to be a Jewish state, it has to have a Jewish majority. And that majority is not to be taken for granted. So you have to make that majority substantial and considerable. Why aren’t the residents of the territories given citizenship? Why aren’t they given an Israeli ID and permitted to participate in political life as citizens in all respects? Because then there would be the concern that we would lose the majority and that this country would cease being a Jewish state.”

So what’s the solution, in your view?

“I don’t feel that the Palestinians are threatening me. It cannot be that it’s impossible for us to live together. I believe that human nature is inherently good and not inherently evil. The idea that to live next to someone else you have to subordinate them to your power isn’t worth living in my view. And I’m convinced that just as it’s possible on the individual level to have excellent relations with Palestinians, without it descending into blows, it’s also possible at the national level. But you have to really want it, particularly when you’re in the kind of pit that we’re in. I see no shred of hope that one day Israel will no longer wish to be an occupier and will grant citizenship to all the occupied Palestinians. So it could be that this will simply end in insane bloodshed. The future doesn’t look promising.”

Leftism as youthful rebellion

Mograbi, 65, was born in Tel Aviv. His father, Gabi, was from a wealthy family that came from Syria and built the famous Tel Aviv Cinema at the corner of Ben-Yehuda and Allenby Streets, more out of a keen business sense than any special love of the movies.

“In the 1920s, the family was building a building at 72 Herzl Street, and my uncle Ya’akov, who was overseeing the project, noticed one day that the laborers weren’t eating lunch. He asked them why, and they told him they were saving money to go to the cinema. If the workers were skipping meals to go to the cinema, that must be a good business, he said. So they bought that lot and built the cinema.”

Mograbi says his father was not a film devotee, but without intending to, he gave his son a very broad education in film.

“He had one very important quality for a movie theater owner. He knew which movie would do well and which one wouldn’t. We had an interesting relationship. He would watch movies on 35mm film in a small screening room on Ahad Ha’am Street – copies that hadn’t been submitted to the censor yet, and I would sit and watch with him. I saw things that I wasn’t supposed to see as a kid,” Mograbi recalled. “From the time I was young, I worked at the cinema. But there was also a lot of tension between us.”

His father, he said, was very opposed to his plans to study filmmaking. “When I was 18, I was working at the box office, and the film that was showing was ‘Big Eyes’ by Uri Zohar, who sat there behind me and counted the tickets that were sold on one hand. My father came into the box office and said to me, right in front of him – ‘This is what you want to be?’”

Instead of filmmaking, Mograbi studied philosophy at Tel Aviv University and art at the Hamidrasha art school, which was then in Ramat Hasharon. He didn’t begin making films until after his father died, when Avi Mograbi was 33.

All of Mograbi’s films so far have dealt with political issues, beginning with his first short film, “Deportation,” and including his first well-known film, “How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon.” They were followed by “Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi,” “Avenge But One of My Two Eyes,” “August: A Moment Before the Eruption,” “Z32” and his latest film, “The First 54 Years.” Mograbi used to think that films could change reality, he says. He no longer believes that, but he still makes movies about situations that seem like lost causes, such as the occupation.

“I used to think that if people only knew what was happening, they wouldn’t go along with it, and the reality would change. And time after time I was disappointed that my films failed to make the leap from the culture pages to political and social discourse. Outside, in the rest of the world, I’ve had a terrific career and I’m admired as a director, and there, sometimes my films also manage to transcend the culture pages. But not here,” he observed.

“Not one film of mine has penetrated that far, not even ‘Avenge But One of My Two Eyes,’ which I thought would provoke anger at me because at the end of the movie I yell at soldiers and don’t speak nicely to them. After that film, I really did experience a moment of despair, when I wondered if I should continue making movies at all.”

His most recent prior film, “Between Fences,” which he made together with theater director Chen Alon and which no Israeli television station wanted to air either, was a documentary about a theater workshop for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers at the Holot detention center, based on the “Theater of the Oppressed” method developed by Brazilian artist Augusto Boal during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s.

“The method states that this is a theater production by members of a marginal group who write a play based on their own experiences and perform it for an audience, with each performance composed of two parts. The first part is the play itself, and in the second part, they bring up volunteers from the audience who step into the shoes of the character who is suffering, act in one of the play’s scenes and suggest an alternative solution for the dilemma that has been presented,” Mograbi explained.

“Boal said that this kind of theater is essentially preparation for a revolution, not in the sense of learning how to make Molotov cocktails and fire guns, but as an attempt to engage the audience, to sweep it into the action, into activism. With cinema, it’s not possible to do that, but I see my films as a type of fuel, as a kind of support or customer service for the good leftists who are not content with the reality in which they are living.”

Mograbi is well-aware that his films will not persuade the unpersuaded.

“The people who come to see my movies are never from the opposition. A right-winger won’t go to see left-wing movies, nor does he need to in order to argue with the left. Ultimately, the audience that comes to see the movie is the choir, the ones who’ve already been converted. But I still think that film has a role to play in strengthening and providing material for the converted,” he remarks. “The left is shrinking all over the world. It’s not something unique to Israel. So I no longer have naïve ideas about changing the reality,” he says, before quickly adding, “Actually, I do, but only in my dreams. With every film, I start out thinking that this time the viewers will die [for it], that there’s no other way and that it’s not possible that they won’t do something with what they see here.”

So each time you put yourself through a process of self-deception.

“I can’t help it. The reality I see pains me and upsets me. I can’t remain silent and not express myself. I don’t think anyone who really cares can do that. But yes, every time I start on a movie, I feel the same way: This time I’m going to do it. This time it will happen. Only to find each time that its reach is much more limited.”

“[I] understand that my chances of cracking something outside of my community are minimal. On the other hand, I don’t think that 10 years before the end of apartheid, there were people who could say – 10 years from now, this thing won’t exist. So I look at the reality and search for the sliver of hope that 10 years from now the occupation won’t exist anymore. You can’t call me an optimist, but one has to have the kind of energy that optimists have, who aren’t able to give up or to stop wanting and hoping for things to change,” Mograbi says.

Why do you think your films are better received abroad?

“It’s easier for people elsewhere because it’s not about them. I was just in France for showings of the film [‘The First 54 Years’], and there are good leftists sitting there and they ask, ‘How could the Jewish people, with everything they’ve been through, do such things?’ which is a logical question. Like when people ask how parents whose parents abused them when they were children could turn into abusive parents themselves. And I reply, ‘How, after the German occupation in France did you go and do what you did in Indochina and Algeria?’ Looking inward is a lot harder than looking outward.”

Mograbi’s best audience is in France, he says. “When I premiered ‘How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon’ at the Lussas documentary film festival in 1997, for three days after the screening, whenever I walked down the village’s one street, everyone smiled at me. They were rolling with laughter at the film. They absolutely loved it. One of the amazing things about the festival is how many young people come to it, even though it’s in this tiny place in the middle of nowhere. The audience keeps getting younger,” he remarked.

“France is really the last cinematic superpower. People are taught to love movies from the time they are babies, and the government also supports cinemas that show experimental films and documentaries that would never survive otherwise.”

Maybe it’s also easier for us to watch critical films about other places.

“I have a problem with films that talk about others’ suffering, films about starving people in the Third World. This necrophilic voyeurism is very disturbing. I hope that I don’t fall into such necrophilia.”

Despite the warm embrace he receives abroad, Mograbi has never considered living anywhere but Israel.

“In my situation and with my standing in the world, I could move wherever I want,” he says. “But I have no such plans or desire. I’m attached to this city. I grew up in Tel Aviv, and I know it inside and out. Beneath the dirt lot at the corner of Allenby and Ben-Yehuda is where all my dreams are buried. Where would I go? Every other country that I think about also has a dirty past of its own. France, Holland, Belgium, America. And what kind of movies would I make outside of Israel? Here I know the good things and the bad things. I am totally living the history and politics and culture of this place, and I love it.”

But aren’t there moments when you feel threatened or like an outcast?

“No, neither one. I’ve never suffered personal attacks. I’ve suffered from something worse – being ignored. In the film community and the tiny and ever-shrinking leftist community, I receive my due, but when you make a film and it’s shown on television, you expect to get a reaction from a little more than the few hundred or thousand that you know by name already. Being ignored can be a very depressing thing when your field is mass media.”

A very close connection

Mograbi has a very close connection with Breaking the Silence. He is on the organization’s board of directors and was one of its founders. “When we founded it, I had no idea what a fantastic organization it would become. Nor did we ever imagine what a broad reach we would have.”

Mograbi had already made one film, “Z32,” in which he used the testimony given by a soldier to Breaking the Silence, but for his new film, he collected a large number of testimonies from different periods, in a way that had never been done before.

The most unique aspect comes from the testimonies of older figures, some of them well-known, such as Shlomo Gazit, the former chief of military intelligence chief and Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (who died last year); longtime human rights activist Yishai Menuhin; video artist Guy Ben-Ner; and musician Ram Orion.

“Originally, Breaking the Silence collected testimonies from 2000 onward, because that was their generation. But when the 50th anniversary of the occupation was approaching, we decided to do a project that would fill in the blanks from the earlier years, from 1967 to 2000. After Shay Fogelman, who oversaw the project, and the team that worked with him finished collecting the testimonies, I took the hundreds of hours of material and tried to put it in some order so we could decide what to do with it. Then I realized that I could use it to make a movie that would describe the occupation from its first day until today.”

In this film, there are a lot of people who had never spoken before about their encounter as part of the military with an occupied population.

“I didn’t choose whom to interview. I didn’t film or conduct the interviews. It’s essentially a movie that is based on archival material, apart from the segments in which I appear. One of the strongest things about having this range of generations is the father and son thing. From Shlomo Gazit, who went to school with my father, to the youngest witnesses, who are now 30 years old. You hear about things like the mapping of houses [for demolition] and entering houses at night, and you say ‘that’s awful,’ and then you discover that it’s been going on there the entire time. It’s not a practice that was invented after this or that intifada. It has always been done there.”

Another key decision in making the film was not to include the interviewees’ personal insights and stocktaking, but to focus on actions alone.

“All the interviewees were people whose military service caused them to undergo some kind of transformation. Most of them started out at a different political position from where they are today, including Gazit, who was there right from the very start of the occupation. But I decided not to take it into the psychological arena. I focused only on the actual practice, on the procedures, the mechanisms, the orders, the actions. Because the lecturer doesn’t say, ‘Think,’ he says, ‘Do.’”

“By sticking to actions, I inadvertently gave birth to the [character of the] lecturer, and afterwards, I felt a need to play him, because if the movie was comprised solely of testimonies, no one could stand it. I showed such a version to my two sons, who are good leftists, people who think critically, and even they awkwardly cleared their throats when it was over.”

Mograbi didn’t originally plan to play the occupation expert himself, but he wasn’t able to find anyone else who would agree to do it.

“The most amazing thing was that everyone outright rejected the possibility that there was a plan, that there is a major process behind this thing [the occupation]. Some of the people I spoke with are military researchers. And at some point, I realized that there was no way I would find anyone from inside, from within the system, who would openly talk about the big master plan. So I volunteered. But you could easily say that Avi Mograbi would have found a way in any event to stick his nose into the film, because in nearly all my films, I find a way to insert myself.”

Why is that?

“Ego must have something to do with it, I guess. It’s still a bit of a mystery.”

I have to admit that it’s a little confusing. Talking with you, it’s hard to separate the movie characters from the real person. So it’s not always clear whether the conversation is serious or sarcastic.

“In all the movies, I appear as myself, but in many of the films, this self is very far from who I really am. I contribute my beautiful body to the piece of art and basically use this possibility to look the viewer in the eye, if I can put it that way, and speak directly to him,” he quipped.

“It began when I made the movie about Arik Sharon,” he said referring to the late prime minister Ariel Sharon.

“I had to play a role – not in the film, but in the filming, because I was one of the founders of the Yesh Gvul movement [founded to support conscientious objectors], and I knew that if Sharon found that out, he would never let me get near him. Throughout the shoot, I acted like this clueless director. There are some ridiculous conversations there. It’s never about politics, only about sheep and calves. These stupid conversations became the heart of the film. It spawned the plot of the film, as a film that’s about a director and what happens to him when he makes a movie about Sharon,” he said.

“Every movie since then has had its own reasons for me to be in it. Apparently, even if I would make a movie about molecules, I’d find a way to be in it, to swim among the molecules.”