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BERLINALE 2021 Forum

Review: The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation

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- BERLINALE 2021: Celebrated Israeli documentarian Avi Mogbrai returns to Berlin with a bleak, talking heads-driven study of Israeli military policy

Review: The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation
Avi Mogbrai in The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation

The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation [+see also:
trailer
interview: Avi Mograbi
film profile
]
finds director Avi Mograbi in the alternately playful and angry form admired from his prior run of documentaries, but in spite of his topic’s gravity, this is not one of his most far-reaching, ambitious films. This French-Finnish-Israeli-German co-production premiered in the Berlinale’s Forum section, which was also home to Mograbi’s more trenchant Between Fences [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
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, and is noted for selecting films responding with formal innovation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Mograbi’s argumentative framing is concurrent with a generation of Israelis coming to terms with their role in perpetuating the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The film is presented as a mock “instructional” video, a clear “how to” guide that gives prescriptions for achieving territorial dominance and population displacement, all with the breezy tone of a cookery tutorial. Mograbi has always put his own presence front and centre in his work; here, he gives direct address to the camera with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, the faux jollity suggesting that irony has become the best pedagogical method, in lieu of respectful solemnity towards the occupation’s targets.

The sad fortunes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been well trodden in documentary cinema, in work from liberal and left-wing Israelis, Palestinian artists and citizen journalists, and international outsiders. Its omnipresence in global news coverage and student activism means that many of us can recount a potted history of the events on cue (this tendency is satirised well in Irish writing prodigy Sally Rooney’s work). Mograbi’s approach has always stood out for its discursive originality in this realm; it is more nuanced, although deeply opinionated, and inclined to use some odd interpretative angles, like the deployment of the Biblical story of Samson in Avenge But One of My Two Eyes [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
. The First 54 Years is not light on pertinent wisdom and testimony, but its focus is too slanted towards information, rather than insight.

Mograbi himself was not even responsible for capturing the video testimonies; these were archived by the organisation Breaking the Silence, a group formally connected to the Israel Defense Forces, established so its soldiers could enlighten the public on conditions in the territories. These are interspersed in long, generous clips alongside Mograbi’s ringleading, animated maps showing the depletion of land, and archival observational footage that’s more forceful than what’s often shown on the news. Interviewees, ranging from men serving their compulsory service to top military brass, form a Greek chorus showing the canny and sometimes appalling methods of asserting authority and quelling any form of resistance.

The intricacy that Mograbi is able to highlight makes the most impact. He ascribes it to a form of psychological conditioning: make the occupied majority feel there is no alternative, and grateful for the meagre independence they do possess. The sense of enclosure, created by the expropriation of land, hulking security barriers, and a labyrinthine succession of checkpoints and security, is evoked with chilling clarity. And it is notable that there is not a single Palestinian interviewee describing these claims: it is an anti-occupation film entirely vocalised by Israelis. This growing collective reckoning by Israeli citizens gives a glimmer of hope for the future, even if this particular film can only glimpse it at arm’s length.

The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation was produced by Les Films d’Ici and 24Images. The co-producers were ARTE France, Citizen Jane Productions, ma.ja.de Productions and Avi Mograbi. Its world sales are represented by The Party Film Sales.

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