Editor-In-Chief Sofia Kourous Vazquez reviews Avi Mograbi’s latest documentary feature.
Natural light softly fills a plain, spacious room. Chalk writings and drawings decorate the back walls. In front of these, a group of men playfully act out the rise and fall of democracy and dictatorships in their home countries. This sounds difficult. It’s not. These men prove that all you need to tell their stories are a few wooden stools to stand on and a healthy dose of humour.
The men on-screen are refugees, many from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. They eat and sleep at the HOLOT detention centre, where they wait for months, and often years, for news on their refugee status — a legal protection Israel rarely grants — and their futures. Voluntarily participating in weekly drama workshops organised by filmmaker Avi Mograbi and theatre director Chen Alon, they engage with each other and their difficult situations through exercises and improvisation. Their performance space? An abandoned military hangar near the facility. Proximity is key because, though they are permitted to leave HOLOT, roll call is taken three times a day, greatly restricting their freedom.
In Between Fences (Bein gderot), Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi spotlights the faces of immigration detention in his country. Though maintaining the unconventional approach and activist spirit of his past works, his latest film expands, with warm aesthetic sense, beyond politics and into the essence of humanity. Mograbi steps back from his usual quasi-protagonism, and instead hands the story, and power, over to the subjects.
It might initially sound dull to learn about the struggles of escaping persecution, crossing borders, and navigating immigration bureaucracy through basic re-enactment by non-actors, but the delicate nature of the migration and asylum-seeking process are difficult to document without creating some ethical dilemmas. Through ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ technique, elaborated by Brazilian stage director Augusto Boal in the 1970s, the refugee subjects in Between Fences are empowered. The approach puts the performers, called spect-actors, in control of the dramatisation, which becomes fluid and meaningful through their different added inputs and interference. The result is extremely moving.
One scene the men act out is an incident at a playground in Tel Aviv where Israeli parents passive-aggressively instruct their children to avoid their black playmates and, in the ensuing confrontation, call for the “infiltrators” to get out of their neighbourhood. Another depicts an asylum-seeker being bribed and blackmailed by Israeli immigration officers to return to his country of origin, or else face arbitrary imprisonment. In many of the skits, the detainees are joined by white, Israeli participants intrigued by the workshops.
Crying out into an imagined desert, a huddle of people reach the fence on the border between Egypt and Israel. They cover themselves with thin, invisible blankets and gather together for warmth. “Please! We are asylum-seekers! Please help us!” On the other side of the barrier, guards angrily urge them to turn back. “Please! We are cold and hungry!” The guards shake the non-existent fence and, through mime, threateningly point their weapons. Like many of the scenes in Between Fences, only the fuzz of a mic or boom pole dipping into frame serve to alert us that what we are watching is not actually happening. The harsh desert wind feels real; at just the right moment, the pane-less windows of the hangar lets in a breeze that ruffles the actors’ clothes and flutters the hair of the young Israeli woman also playing the part of a refugee.
The fourth wall does not exist in the Theatre of the Oppressed, and Mograbi does away with it in his documentary as well. We often see the director involving himself in the workshops, wearing his headphones and sound recording equipment as he does, and the cameras are also often keen to join in. The result is unorthodox but comforting. In a Q&A following a screening of Between Fences at the ICA, Mograbi revealed he could not include the most touching moment of the shoot, which involved one of the Eritrean migrants sharing his need to risk returning home to be united with his newly orphaned son, because the footage was ruined by the director’s crying and resulting shaky camera work. “I’m sorry I could not be more professional, but…” He gives a sheepish smile and shrugs. Personally, I am glad professionalism is sometimes tossed aside; it is good to know there is empathy behind the camera.
Empathy is indeed the film’s greatest achievement. The footage from the workshops is interspersed with clips of informal interviews of HOLOT’s detainees and documentation of the centre’s exterior, enriching the material with deeper insights into the state of limbo the men are trapped in. Between Fences is a process. Comfort increases as it progresses, and the documentary practice becomes more authentic when it confronts and questions itself in the various small turning points.
This film surprised me. Not only interesting in subject matter and innovative in format — to be expected from Mograbi — it is beautifully presented as well. Fluid camerawork imbues the film with a quiet vibrancy to match the spirits of its endearing subjects. Subtle sound design effectively uses silence to create space for emotion and communication. At other times, the natural audio is overlaid with singing, adding a poignant touch to the communal moments. Between Fences does not ask questions, and it certainly does not provide answers. It listens, suspending itself ambiguously between hope and hopelessness.
Between Fences was released in January 2017. It was screened in August in cinemas across the UK as part of ‘Crossings: Stories of Migration’, an ICA-led film and events programme supported by the BFI. Watch a clip from the film below.