A DVD You Must Own

More timely than ever, the London-based Second Run DVD is releasing a disk of Avi Mograbi's Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, a startling and powerful film by one of the most unfairly neglected of Israeli film and video artists. Avenge played the New York Film Festival in 2005 and at the time I wrote this about it:

The line between life and death, this year’s New York Film Festival seems to be telling us, is getting thinner all the time.

This somber thought is at the heart of both Middle Eastern films selected for this year’s event: Avi Mograbi’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes and Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now. Both films are stark studies of homicidal-suicidal political rage and how it is created and stoked.

Mograbi, who some may recall from August and How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Ariel Sharon, is an Israeli director who works very effectively in video, using the medium’s immediacy to great effect. This is nowhere truer than in his new work. Over the past few years, Mograbi shot a series of short cinema verite documentaries at army checkpoints, showing the nerve-wracking incidents that make up daily life there. Now he has integrated that footage into a feature-length work, one that departs startlingly from the pointed satire of his earlier work.

It’s not hard to guess where Avenge is headed from its opening scene, a black screen with a phone conversation between Mograbi and a Palestinian friend who is bemoaning the latest curfew and lockdown in his town. One immediately guesses that this is not going to be mordantly funny like August and if there is self-deprecation ahead, it will be much darker than in that film. But nothing in Mograbi’s work—not even the "Checkpoint" shorts—could have prepared us for the somberness of his new film.

Avenge is cunningly structured, moving back and forth between scenes of Israeli soldiers exercising infuriatingly arbitrary and seemingly pointless power over Palestinian civilians at the checkpoints, school groups listening to guides at Masada extol the suicidal choice of the Judeans that ended the siege by Roman troops and Mograbi’s dispirited friend contemplating the Occupation. The cuts between Masada (as well as similar discussions of Samson’s destruction of the Philistines, itself a suicidal act) and the checkpoints, often involving sound overlaps in which we hear the guides and teachers while watching the beginning of the next confrontation, make the ideological connections abundantly clear.

If that were all there was to the film, its 104-minute running time would be unbearable, repetitive and clumsily didactic. However, Mograbi is smarter than that. The film is woven of a more complex series of thematic skeins that often are only revealed gradually. Thus, one docent explains the Roman siege wall around Masada: “This wasn’t just a ‘separation wall’ as we call it today, it was a statement by the Romans that they were here to stay.” Yet we learn from another guide later that the Roman wall was “only 2.5 meters high, and the guard posts were basically just wooden platforms,” while we see sections of the current “separation wall” that are clearly larger and much more permanent structures. Mograbi is much less a defining presence in this film than in his previous work, which in part explains the melancholy humorlessness of Avenge. The one scene in which he is clearly an active participant comes late in the film and involves him in a heated argument with a young Israeli lieutenant. Where the anger in August was a subject for much of the film’s humor, this time the filmmaker is deadly serious, nearly apoplectic with rage, and the result is, like the rest of this deeply disturbing work, profoundly upsetting.

Back to October 2006, and my feelings about the film haven't changed at all. If anything, with the events of this summer, Mograbi's vision resonates even more powerfully. This is not a pleasant film, no question about it, but it is one that cries out to be seen. It is opening in London on November 5, and will be released by Second Run on DVD on November 13. By all means go to their website and buy a copy. That this film hasn't been more widely shown in the US is a disgrace.

Second Run is also releasing a whole bunch of other goodies, a bit easier on the ears and conscience perhaps, but no less compelling, including several important East European films and Blissfully Yours by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I'll write about some of those shortly. (And before you ask, no, I didn't double-check the spelling of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. What do you think I am, a dope?)