Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti Pa’am Lagan) (Avi Mograbi – Israel/France/Germany) 97 minutes
Avi Mograbi’s 2005 film Avenge But One of My Two Eyes was not seen by many people outside of Israel or France but it is, in my opinion, the greatest documentary of the past decade. It was several films in one – a ruminative video diary, a reportage on the suicide-valorising Samson and Massada cults prevalent in Israel, a journey into the weirdness of the settler far-right (the title comes from a song by a Hasidic punk band), and a polemical testimony to the humiliating treatment visited upon Palestinians at IDF checkpoints. Mograbi, a long-time leftist who went to prison for refusing to serve in Lebanon in the 1980s (something his son has since emulated), is like Michael Moore crossed with Chris Marker, with a dash of WG Sebald thrown in for good measure. He is angry without being hectoring, persistently inquisitive and his films breathe discursive ideas.
After 2009’s Z32, in which Mograbi got a former Israeli conscript to re-enact the abuse of Palestinian civilians he was party to, he returns with a film that is more reflective and personal. Again, we have a film of protean form – Mograbi initially intended making a movie about a cousin of his father who lived in Beirut and who was bemused to be caught up in the new reality of Jewish-Arab relations post-1948. Much of that remains in the film, with letters written by the cousin read in French by the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass overlaid on contemporary footage of his Beirut home shot to look like old Super-8. But the bulk of the film is recorded conversations between Mograbi and his friend and Arabic teacher, the Palestinian academic Ali Al-Azhari.
The pair search through old documents looking for traces of Mograbi’s ancestors and riff on everything from the Nakba, the relative freedom of movement of Israelis and Palestinians to hummus, olives and the Arab Spring. They visit Al-Azhari’s childhood home, from which his family was expelled in 1948, and which now bears a sign saying ‘forbidden to foreigners’. There is barbed humour: when Mograbi says his Arabic lessons are making Al-Azhari a rich man, the Palestinian replies ‘that’s payback for the Nakba’. The dialogue is in both Hebrew and Arabic (with the subtitles colour-coded to help the uninitiated distinguish them) with Mograbi clearly less confident in the latter, stopping from time to time to ask Al-Azhari how to say certain words. It’s a visible humbling of the big bearish man seen in Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (though, to be fair, Mograbi has always engaged in self-deprecation in his films) and his newly-grown moustache gives him an avuncular Mitteleuropean air. It is rare that you see the process of language-learning on screen and the resonance of the exchanges in Arabic might be lost on anyone who has not turned that significant corner in learning a language when the words finally start to flow.
Though Mograbi and Al-Azhari are clearly not terribly representative of their respective communities – Mograbi is well to the left and more conscious of his Arab heritage than the vast majority of Israelis and Al-Azhari, despite being dispossessed as a child, has a prestigious job and lives relatively comfortably by Palestinian standards – there is a real sense that we are witnessing a dialogue between nations. It is a languid dialogue, one in which Al-Azhari’s sprightly and smart eight-year-old daughter intervenes with perorations on racism at her Tel Aviv school, and it is reminiscent of a Middle Eastern My Dinner With André. You wonder if Mograbi has given up on the more confrontational demotic documentaries of his earlier career, but Once I Entered a Garden is a wonderfully rich work that traces a shared history in a region that too often seems irrevocably divided.