Once I Entered A Garden

Once I Entered A Garden


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

We open on a persuasion attempt - Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi is at the beginning of a new film project, and has asked Ali Al-Ahazari, his Palestinian friend of 30 years and former Arabic teacher, to be his writing partner. Al-Ahazari is openly ignorant of the filmmaking process, and unclear about his role in the effort. "I'm past the point of trusting you." "Good, it only took 30 years." Al-Ahazari makes one firm request: "Pay attention to how I'm represented."

This documentary about a making-of film, about a non-existent film, is a detailed chronology of their pre-writing research process and a worthy cinematic journey in and of itself. Al-Ahazari and Mograbi are obviously amiable and comfortable in one another's presence. Some of the material in the film (especially early on) assumes knowledge of much Israeli and Middle-Eastern history. To my shame, I'm unclear on such knowledge - but it's made apparent that neither man is welcome in his home state.

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Even so, Al-Ahazari is an affable guide, and keeps a healthy library in his home - started by his father. The early research efforts deliver a perfect opportunity to showcase it. The pair are looking for clothing accessory traders from the mid-Thirties to fill out story material and with a flourish, the library reveals a Gideon's Guide - a sort-of Yellow Pages from 1938, and written in three languages: Arabic, French and English. Also pulled from the archives is a page from a calendar published in the mid-Thirties in Damascus, featuring tripartite calendars: Hebrew, Christian and Julian dates. Al-Ahazari passes it under his nose - "It smells of history". It raises the issue of secular nationalism, even in a historically recent period.

The first act opens up big gentle laughs as the pair bicker and bring up tangents about 1948's formation of the Israeli state, and the resultant land-grabbing. And wonderful stories about the restrictions of movements afforded to Palestinians - on Palestine Day of all days.

The film takes great joy in two old men poring over family connections and the past. The trinkets and knick-knacks of a lifetime are pulled up and discarded quickly to lively and fun effect. Al-Ahazari draws connections to Mograbi's family who embraced Arabian culture while keeping his ancestor's Jewish identity buried. The joker Al-Ahazari emerges with gusto from a cupboard dressed as an Arab in full get-up. The clothes are "made in Mecca".

It's an interesting choice to film in 2.35:1 widescreen - the wide ratio is rarely afforded full use, but it's about capturing the thought process and interplay between the men.

Later on, Mograbi tells Al-Azhari his own Palestinian/Israeli love story. His own lover can never live with him permanently without societal ostracisation. It's a deeply painful story, but Al-Azhari is optimistic. "Nothing lasts forever - there could be a reconciliation!" Their reaction to the Tahrir Square protests broadcast live on Al-Jazeera is euphoric - "Can you fathom this phenomenon?" Al-Ahazari is agog, giggling in overwhelmed joy.

We see the pair scouting locations to inspire the film writing process - and they invite Al-Ahazari's scene-stealing daughter along for the journey. She's a sensitive but sharp as a pin, little girl. Her place in the story is a cultural gyroscope - helping to steady the narrative for newcomers and pass straightforward comment on the society, free of overt indoctrination.

The film is definitely overlong and indulgent, but contains many delightful moments; it showcases a truly great friendship, forged through several common themes. That of mutual ostracisation, dual master-pupil identities and that of the importance of family.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2013
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Conversations across the Israeli-Palestinian divide, and memories of a love affair.
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Director: Avi Mograbi

Year: 2012

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: France, Israel, Switzerland


EIFF 2013

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