Trial and jury

A former Israeli soldier fraught with guilt over killings he'd performed in uniform and filmmaker Avi Mograbi collaborate on 'Z32.'

Z32 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Z32 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A former Israeli soldier fraught with guilt over killings he'd performed in uniform and sensationalist filmmaker Avi Mograbi collaborate on 'Z32,' a farsically semi-animated, semi-musical morality play Filmmaker Avi Mograbi is known for his personal documentaries focused on political figures and issues that are mostly opposed to his own views. From his tongue-in-cheek How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon (1997), in which he tried to understand the military and political leader's character, to Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (2005), his examination of Israeli myths such as Samson and Masada alongside the mistreatment of Palestinians at IDF checkpoints, Mograbi has always put himself between his subject and his camera. But in Z32 - his new film about the testimony of an elite IDF soldier fraught with guilt over a revenge mission in which he shot and killed random Palestinian Authority security men - Mograbi is more than the viewer's moral stand-in. In agreeing to the soldier's request to hide his identity, and in helping him find a way to tell his story, he is also his subject's collaborator. "I collaborated wholeheartedly," he says. "But I wasn't happy about it." The idea for the film came out of Mograbi's volunteer work for Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika), a group of ex-soldiers who take testimony from soldiers about their military service. After taking video testimony for a large 2004 exhibit in Tel Aviv called "Hebron Veterans," which Mograbi says drew more than 7,000 visitors, he continued to volunteer and log voice-recorded testimony. There he came upon the story of a soldier whose anonymous filename was Z32. He got Z32's phone number, and asked him whether he'd be interested in being in a film about his testimony. Z32 quickly agreed, but with the requirement that his identity not be revealed. MOGRABI IS ultra-conscious of his position as a collaborator. When he first thought about making the documentary, he approached it from an unsympathetic position. "In a normal world," he says, "there would be no need for me to make this film. Z32 would have already been on trial." Instead, through this film, Z32 has put himself on trial. He has pleaded guilty to what he believes is his crime, but asks to be pardoned. He has assigned his girlfriend as his judge. He drags her into the film despite her ambiguity about participating. She is his gauge in everything from his emotions to his performance in front of the camera. He asks her whether she was angry at him when he first told her the story of the revenge killing. He retells her about the experience in front of the camera. He explains to her that he feels guilty, but flippantly describes some of his actions as a soldier. He turns the camera into their vacation in India, into their living room, into their kitchen. Eventually he asks her to recount his story as if she were him, to say it in his words. She tries, finds it difficult to play the part and gives up. He tries to absolve himself through her conscience. And while she wants to support him, she finds it difficult to condone his actions. To expose these actions, Mograbi had to conceal Z32's identity. For Mograbi, this "shielding" was problematic. He made the concealment of the soldier's identity one of the film's sub-themes. And when Z32 made his girlfriend part of the film, her identity, too, had to be concealed. Mograbi introduces this hiding game with his first on-camera appearance, where his head is covered by a black stocking. Little by little, still wearing the stocking, he cuts out holes for his eyes and nose and mouth. We see that you can get a sense of personal expression expression without needing to see the whole face. With Z32 and his girlfriend, Mograbi began simply by blurring their faces, as often done on television to hide someone's identity. Then he exposed their eyes and mouth, giving the blurs a sense of personality. Still not satisfied, he built a plain, 3D, skin-color Venetian mask. By the middle of the film, Mograbi has built a completely new 3D face both for the soldier and his girlfriend, leaving only their original eyes and mouths. It's convincing enough that, for a moment or two, the viewer can forget that these aren't their actual faces. Part of the thrill is that the viewer is under the illusion that he is nearer to the "real" Z32, to being able to identify him. Until he lifts his hand to take a drag of his cigarette, and the artificiality of the mask is exposed. Since all of the special effects used to conceal the faces were done using digital 3-D animation, much of his budget went to putting a face to this faceless story. "It would have been cheaper to hire an actor to play the role," he says. "In fact, it would have been cheaper to send Z32 to Argentina for a face-job." ANYONE FAMILIAR with Mograbi's films expects him to play some kind of role. He's usually out in the world interacting with people, getting embroiled in situations, the camera filming him in some sort of conflict with his subject. Mograbi also converses with himself via the camera and audience. His musings and reflection on his political and artistic aims, his evaluation on the progress of the film, the way that his anxieties and obsessions infiltrate his personal life - these all become part of the comedy of a Mograbi film and what makes it a personal documentary. The film is not just about the subject, but also about a nervous and troubled man trying to cope with making a film about the subject. But Mograbi the character is not Mograbi the director. "In the films I'm less radical than in reality to connect with a larger audience," he says. He says that Europeans have come to consider him a sort of "freedom fighter," a perception he can laugh about. But it's a status that helps him continue making his films. Z32 was a French co-production, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, and since then shown at numerous festivals throughout Europe, as well as in Argentina. Yet Mograbi recounts that over time he became disillusioned with the possibility of making political art that would have a political result. In Israel, he didn't see any noticeable response to his films other than reviews by the leftist press that was already sympathetic to his cause. "There was no one who told me I was bad," he says. In thinking of his next film, he didn't want to return to what he'd already done. "It's important not to bore yourself. It's also important not to bore your audience." His first idea with the film was to have a guy who talked directly into the camera. This was new for Mograbi, who rarely interviewed anyone but himself in his films. But after the first few attempts, Z32 complained that he wasn't able to tell the story the way he had thought of it at home the night before. So Mograbi gave him the camera, and much of the material was shot without Mograbi's physical presence. A second idea Mograbi had was to use the soldier's written testimony and turn it into the libretto of an opera. This idea transformed into musical spots throughout the film, and the lyrics' point of view changed from the soldier's to the director's. "It took about a year to write the songs," says Mograbi. The songs are thoughtfully composed - some are fully orchestrated - and the pieces are professionally recorded in the director's living room. The songs are also Mograbi's storytelling device. When the repeatedly frustrated interviews between Z32 and his girlfriend begin to lose steam, Mograbi appears and retells the audience what has just happened, and includes his usual moral reflection on this. In one of the slower tunes, he sings, "My wife says - this is no material for a film." POKING FUN at himself is not the only point. There's a real and serious question here having to do with personal and collective guilt. When Mograbi sings in the same song that his wife has asked him not to invite Z32 to their house again for an interview, it sounds almost light and humorous. But it's also true: She preferred not to have him in their house. As viewers, our desire to know this story together with the constant reminder of the soldier's hidden identity make us doubly aware of the deception that we agree to be a part of. Like Mograbi, who has agreed not to reveal the real face, we accept that we will never know who Z32 is in order for us to have access to his story. At that point, we, too, are implicated, accepting his crime together with his privilege to hide himself from prosecution for it. But in the end, it's Z32 who is once again implicated by his own deception. Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Z32 confesses his crime. But Raskolnikov turned himself in and sought society's punishment. And while with this film Z32 takes a bold step in that direction, he never gives himself over completely. This is a possibly wise move in terms of self-preservation, but is one that is unlikely to alleviate the guilt. Z32 will play at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on November 30 at 6:15 p.m., to be followed by a Q&A with the director.