Berlinale 2021 review: The First 54 Years (Avi Mograbi)

Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi has dedicated his career to documenting the wrongdoings of his home country, mostly by the hand of its armed forces, against the Palestinian people. To achieve this Mograbi uses first-person documentary techniques, making him not only the narrator but also one of the main characters in his movies. Yet a clear shift has occurred since Z32 (2008), where for the first time Mograbi put at the center of the movie not his own condemnations and ponderings on Israeli politics, but the testimony of a young soldier who had been involved in war crimes. The First 54 Years compiles a full collection of similar confessions from men having served in the military over the last five decades. These have been gathered by the NGO Breaking the Silence, whose purpose and Mograbi’s are of the same kind: expose to the general public the illegality and the immorality perpetrated in the occupied territories, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

In The First 54 Years, the reports from the soldiers are used as examples in a thorough presentation of half a century of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank had both been seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war), narrated as neutrally as possible by Mograbi. His exposé, delivered in a clearly tongue-in-cheek manner, gives to the movie a Starship Troopers tone, as it feels like the biased “would you like to know more?” infomercials inserted in Verhoeven’s film. But the more Mograbi proceeds with his thorough depiction of the ‘manufactured reality’ created by Israelis to separate in every aspect their lives and those of the Palestinians, the more the reality behind the irony becomes as bleak here as it is in Verhoeven’s work of fiction.

The soldiers’ testimonies are all timely placed to crack the surface of the deceptive narrative of the occupation, and show its true colors. The dissonance between their honest subjectivity, and the cold and cynical false objectivity otherwise mimicked by the movie, works really well. Through the soldiers’ stories, what we discover is, in the first stages, an addition of petty humiliations and offences, each one seemingly of no consequence but whose accumulation nourishes resentment in the dominated population. This is an endless supply of renewable fuel for the escalation of hatred and violence between the opposing parties, which we see growing slowly and steadily over the long period of time covered by The First 54 Years. Outbursts of full-out war occur more and more frequently (Intifadas on one side, cold-blooded military operations clearing out the land on the other), but it is the calm between storms that is the most alarming. What the witnesses really describe to their audience (the NGO, Mograbi, us) is a process of dehumanization which has reached its final stage. As several soldiers point out, “we converse with them only through gunfire”, and no one exists as an individual anymore. Heavily armored and masked soldiers versus nameless targets shot from afar: humans on both sides have dissolved into the basic functions they are doomed to perform. As their countries seem doomed to go through an undetermined number of additional years of conflict.