Once I Entered a Garden: Rome Review
Rome Film Festival (CinemaXXI)
Ali Al Azhari, Avi Mograbi, Yasmine Al Azhari
Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi premieres his latest personal-political documentary in Rome's CinemaXXI selection.
ROME -- Documentary filmmaker Avi Mograbi once again explores the repercussions of Israel’s short but embroiled history in Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti pa’am lagam), a moving demonstration of how decades of conflict have affected the lives of both Jewish and Arab residents alike, revealing them to have much more in common than their claims to the same plot of land. At once an intimate portrait of the director’s long-time Palestinian comrade and teacher, poetic account of a love affair torn apart by war, and self-reflexive film-in-the-making, this Rome CinemaXXI entry should tour the festival circuit before landing in scattered art houses, particularly in Western Europe.
With his persistent questioning and finicky attitude, Mograbi – whose credits include the virulent Avenge But One of My Two Eyes and the darkly comic Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi – is something like an Israeli Michael Moore, placing himself at the center of his stories and making his investigations part of the drama. Yet unlike Moore, the 55-year-old director has always been weary of cinema’s ability to influence national affairs, and his movies are much less calls for revolt than wry reflections on the state of things, including his own personal and professional troubles.
While his latest work is no different, the director has finally found someone with enough chutzpah to rival his own in Ali Al Azhari, a Tel Aviv-based Palestinian who was Mograbi’s Arabic teacher for a number of years, and who here serves as living testimony to an existence uprooted by years of war and political crisis. Chased along with his family from the village of Saffuriyya (located just outside of Nazareth) during Israel’s creation in 1948, Al Azhari eventually married a Jewish woman (“it was the best therapy for me”) and is the father of a spirited Jewish-Arab girl, Yasmin Al Azhari, who winds up playing an essential role in the movie.
The film begins with the director and his subject discussing the project at hand, followed by scenes of them searching for the filmmaker’s ancestors in an edition of the yellow pages dated 1938-39, covering the nations of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. The directory – published in three languages (French, English and Arabic) – is one of many references made to the diaspora that existed in that section of the Middle East before it was sliced up along religious lines, and Mograbi and Al Azhari spend much of the movie discussing how their respective cultural heritages were upended by events following the Second World War.
Alongside these conversations – which take place in both Hebrew and Arabic, with Mograbi doing his best to keep up with his ex-professor – are a number of flashback-like sequences (filmed in Super 8 or 16mm) that tell the story of a romance cut short by local conflicts, with an unnamed, Beirut-based woman (Aysha Taybe) reciting letters to a lover as war closes in around her. Beautifully written and narrated, these scenes offer up another, more poetic example of how relationships are destroyed by regional clashes, mirroring the real-life tales told by Mograbi and Al Azhari.
After visiting sites in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the two friends ultimately make their way to Al Azhari’s birthplace, where they are confronted with yet another case of the absurd realities governing the land. While the men are clearly used to such obstacles by now, the young Yasmin is not, and her reaction provides an indication as to how future generations may grow to accept their nation’s dark heritage.
As in other Mograbi movies, Garden utilizes a two-camera system – one operated by the director, one by D.P. Phillipe Bellaïche (The Flat) – that frames both the action and the framing of the action. It’s an ingenious approach, revealing two sides to a long and sad story that’s often told from only a single viewpoint.
Venue: Rome Film Festival (CinemaXXI)
Production companies: Les Films d’Ici, Avi Mograbi Films, Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion
Cast: Ali Al Azhari, Avi Mograbi, Yasmine Al Azhari
Director: Avi Mograbi
Screenwriters: Avi Mograbi, Noam Enbar
Producers: Serge Lalou, Avi Mograbi, Samir
Director of photography: Phillipe Bellaïche
Music: Noam Enbar
Editors: Avi Mograbi, Rainer M. Trinkler
Sales: Doc & Film International
No rating, 103 minutes
Sundance: On the Scene