Israeli Filmmaker Avi Mograbi Makes Art, Not War

Mograbi says despite the political content of his films, they are art first

Like many living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories today, Avi Mograbi cannot recall a moment in his life without the presence of war or political strife. It comes as no surprise, then, that Mograbi, an Israeli filmmaker, deals with these elements in each of his highly stylized non-fiction films. Mograbi will visit the Harvard Film Archive on Sunday, Sep. 20 to give a lecture accompanying a screening of his most recent film, “Z32.”

“Z32,” which is based on the confession of an Israeli soldier, describes his involvement in the revenge slayings of two Palestinian police officers. The title refers to the incident’s file number, the story of which Mograbi found in the archives of an organization that collects testimonies from ex-Israeli soldiers. In this film, Mograbi, who is also the narrator, takes his artistic aspirations to new levels, using animation, computer-generated imagery, and other surrealist elements to “mask” the young man, making him unidentifiable. According to Mograbi, these devices allowed him to enhance the film’s artistic qualities and preserve the anonymity of the soldier. Mograbi says that he also changed how he narrated the film. “Like previous films, I am always there commenting on the dilemmas [of the subjects], and this time I don’t do it by talking but by singing,” Mograbi says.

“This [method] has developed over a while looking for a different way of expression,” he continues. “Singing allows myself to distance myself from the material... and look at the artistic aspects.”

All eight of Mograbi’s films focus on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, particularly on how the constant violence between the two territories impacts their residents. Mograbi is well-known for adding incongruous elements to his films, including dark humor and his own musings, which often reflect his pacifist views. He says that his aversion to violence began to develop after a stint as a reserve soldier in 1983, when he refused to fight in the war between Israel and Lebanon. “I thought the war was initiated for no reason,” he says, “but now my views are more so. At the time, I was against this specific war, but now I don’t think I would [serve] in any war.”

However, Mograbi is careful to emphasize that his passionate political views are not responsible for his interest in filmmaking. He refuses to acknowledge any formative experiences that account for his career. He explains that he had always intended to be an artist. “Making films is part of my life,” Mograbi says. Although his films are often billed as documentaries, Mograbi insists they are not. “My films are first and foremost pieces of art.”

The way in which Mograbi’s politics inform his art has been a source of contention among critics. A notable scene in his 2005 film, “Avenge But One of My Two Eyes,” features Arab men forced to stand on rocks by Israeli soldiers. Many have observed parallels between this scene and the images from Abu Ghraib that dominated international media at the time the movie was released. According to Mograbi, however, there are no such parallels, and those who view his movies should refrain from making direct comparisons between movie scenes and other political events. “I film things for themselves,” Mograbi says. However, he acknowledges the value that “Z32” and his other films have for international audiences. “I would be very happy if lots of Israelis watched the film,” he says, “but certainly other countries engaged in war, such as America, can benefit.”