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Film. Refugees, forced to live like prisoners, turn a mirror toward Israel in Avi Mograbi’s new film, “Between the Fences.”

Israel is the Promised Land, but not for everyone

On the ground floor of a concrete building, under the desert sun, some men are wandering aimlessly, crossing paths. From time to time, one of them climbs on a stool. “I seized power!” he tells the others, who react by assembling to protest against the new “dictator.” Where are we? Who are these people? Are they insane? And above all, where is Avi Mograbi?

The famous Israeli filmmaker starts each of his films by talking to the camera about how he turned an unsolvable problem into a movie. For once, instead, he remains silent.

A big wall, the only one devoid of windows, is filled with writings and signs that form an image so far unintelligible. It is clear that this hieroglyphic is a symbol: It represents a mystery that the film has to solve. What is it? In the middle of the wall there is a big snake, maybe an echo of Mograbi’s 2012 film, Once I Entered a Garden. But it’s a false clue. Between the Fences is not a garden. It’s a prison.

Those living there aren’t exactly prisoners. They are allowed to walk around, on certain conditions. They are asylum seekers. Since 2007, Israel has witnessed 50,000 of them enter its territory. They come from Eritrea and Sudan. In their home countries their lives are at risk, and therefore they are protected by international laws. Israel, which is less than welcoming of refugees, calls them “infiltrators.” But it can’t send them back. Therefore they are kept in the middle of the desert, hoping they decide to leave on their own.

The mysterious image becomes more clear. We are drawn into a story that is typical of the 19th century and also typically Jewish. We are in front of Kafka’s door of justice — meant not to enter but to wait. We are in Israel, the land founded by European refugees. We are confronted with men coming not from Abraham’s promised land but whom each Israeli should be able to understand. Or rather, with men who should be recognized even prior to being understood. Our hieroglyphic, so confusing and absurd, should appear clearly to the sight of the soul or, if you will, of the heart. That Eritrean or Sudanese seeking asylum is me.

What is preventing this process of identification? In the first part of the movie, it is clear that Mograbi believes the cause has to do with a lack of lucidity and transparency. If intuition doesn’t work, the reason must be prodded. Here is where theater can help. Mograbi and the stage director, Chan Alon, have created a laboratory. In their project, they ask the refugees interpret stories of yesterday’s refugees — Jews during the 1930s. The assumption is that, through this exchange, the spectator will overcome appearances and grasp the essence of truth: We are them.

After an initial euphoria, the participants lose interest in theater and start missing rehearsals. Eventually, the two Africans who remained found the courage to tell the three white men directing the exercise that something isn’t working. They survived horrible ordeals that no one is talking about, they said. Why should they, when finally given a chance to speak, narrate stories that are not theirs? Now it’s the refugees turn to choose what stories to tell and how. But by turning the tables, will it give meaning to the work done so far? The first error is to think that understanding them is enough to truly empathize. The second is to go down the opposite way, just as naive: that empathy is enough to understand.

Mograbi is undoubtedly very much involved — with his heart — in the condition of these refugees. But is it possible to distinguish empathy from self indulgence? We witness this problem in a scene where Mograbi, with the camera on his shoulder, follows the refugees to a protest march. The demonstration ends with a mass arrest. Alone and free, Mograbi walks over to a fence with an old man sitting behind it. The sequence is both comic and terrible. The man with the camera would like to be there, on the old man’s side. Most of all, he would like the old man to help him step over to the other side, that of the oppressed — with his heart, if not with his feet. But the old man doesn’t reciprocate. He leaves the white man to boil in his guilt.

And the hieroglyphic? It might be revealed by the end of the movie. Or maybe the opposite: The film will tangle it even more. This is what makes us admire Mograbi: His films truly are a philosophical school. They don’t solve problems; they show why it is necessary to distrust one’s own answers.