Since the end of the last century, Avi Mograbi has been filming Israel, his country. His work as a documentary filmmaker seems simple, at first glance: to capture the reality that presents itself in front of his lens. Except that between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, reality has a volatile character that requires more than a sense of observation from the filmmaker, an intellectual and ethical requirement. Sometimes at the risk of his life, Mograbi tried not only to capture the physical manifestations of the instability of borders, of the conflicting cohabitation of two peoples on the same land, but also to give them meaning.

Presented at the Berlinale in 2021, The First 54 Years appears as an acknowledgment of failure, while refusing to be merely an act of surrender. As its title suggests, it is about embracing the history of the interminable occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza since the Six-Day War in 1967. Its subtitle – “Abridged Manual of ‘military occupation’ – heralds the form. It will be a master class, ostensibly intended for states that aspire to establish their domination over a territory that was not originally theirs.

Facing the camera, the filmmaker speaks, in French in the version broadcast by Arte, to the public to detail the conduct to be followed at each stage, from the entry of the troops into the disputed territory until the moment when the provisional becomes permanent. Each statement of one of the elements of the strategies and tactics is followed by the testimony of an Israeli soldier who participated in their implementation. We hear the voices of high-ranking officers as well as those of conscripts, from the first soldiers to enter Ramallah or Hebron to those who participated in Operation Cast Lead (or Operation Molten Lead) in 2009 in Gaza, after the dismantling of the colonies.

Irony is an essential dimension of Avi Mograbi’s cinema: one of his first feature films was called How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Ariel Sharon (1996). The system put in place at the start of the 54 First Years seems to be part of this mood, especially since the director – he explains it in an interview on the Arte site – let himself grow a professorial goat for the occasion. , in order to look more masterful.

terrible sadness

But very quickly, amusement (or annoyance) gives way to other feelings. The boredom, a little, which arises from the repetition of testimonies. These, with a few exceptions, recount transgressions that are altogether minor, compared – for example – to those committed today in Ukraine: an Israeli soldier orders a child to climb a live electricity pole in order to take down a Palestinian flag; a carpenter and his son are tied overnight to an olive tree to prevent them from warning the inhabitants of their village of the installation of a roadblock. This boredom then gives way to a terrible sadness.

The testimonies presented throughout the film, collected by the organization Breaking the Silence, of which Avi Mograbi is one of the founders, give the measure of the passing of the years. The witnesses of the beginnings of the occupation, in 1967, are today old people. Those who experienced the first intifada, in 1983, have the heads of young grandfathers. And so on to the almost young people who participated in “Fused Lead” in 2008-2009. And the stories told by the latter are hardly different from those of their elders. The successive shocks, the changes at the head of the State of Israel, the Palestinian uprisings, the diplomatic agreements have no other effect than to sink these shreds of land even further into a violence that is repeated over and over again. infinite.

The First 54 Years is ultimately understood as the expression of a deep despair, which is reminiscent of that which inhabited Nadav Lapid’s last (fiction) feature film, Le Genou d’Ahed. Like the reprobate filmmaker who was the focus of Lapid’s film, Mograbi preaches in the desert, and he knows it. We believe he is convinced of the futility of his efforts. He may organize his demonstration meticulously, recalling the legal foundations of the occupation, the distribution of roles between the security forces and the settlers established in the territories, he may complete these explanations with archive images, sometimes known, sometimes torn from oblivion, he already knows that, like his previous films, this one will have no effect on reality. Unlike its predecessors, The First 54 Years found no broadcasters in Israel.