A blackly comic rumination on the state of mind of Israel in summer 2000, the acerbic and eerily prophetic “August” captures a snapshot of the Jewish nation just prior to the hostilities that broke out two months later. Even those accustomed to director Avi Mograbi’s signature variations on the “personal diary” format may find “August” disconcerting, ending as it does with an implied psychological and cinematic meltdown. Half documentary, half intentionally fake psychodrama, film alternates man-in-the-street vignettes with increasingly bizarre confessional speeches made directly to the camera, the two modes merging pointedly as pic progresses. Winner of the peace prize at Berlin fest, piece features a bleak insider portrait of Israel that will appeal to the director’s fans, but is unlikely to gain him new adherents on this side of the Atlantic. Arthouse or indie cable play may depend on changes in the American perception of the Middle East.
Venturing forth into the streets of Tel Aviv, Mograbi encounters extraordinary levels of rage and bitterness, which gradually become his own. Pic’s uniqueness lies in its screwball mix of deconstructed domestic drama and verite politics, the latter involving conversations with ordinary citizens. People engage Mograbi and his camera in paranoid discourse, insisting to know who he is and hysterically demanding he stop shooting immediately, accusing him of working for unknown enemies. He rarely needs to ask questions to document the prevailing political climate: Children from ritzy suburbs prance and preen in front of the camera and openly volunteer their contempt for Arabs, while Arab subjects also react with hostility, and take for granted they’re being filmed to provide examples of local lowlifes.
Unlike fellow docu-diarist Michael Moore, who clearly sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and relishes his role as provocateur, Mograbi tends to internalize the contradictions he explores and, closer to the tradition of Nanni Moretti (“Caro Diario”), portrays himself as a far less heroic or loveable schlemiel.
His badly-shaven face looming uncomfortably close to the lens, Mograbi starts out by confiding his hopes and fears for “August,” contrasting his pessimistic view of the month, his movie and his homeland with his wife’s more conventional optimism. As events unfold, he suffers a fictional personality split and begins to address the camera successively or, via split screen, simultaneously, as “himself,” as his own wife (Mogravi with a pink towel wrapped around his head) and as his irate producer, Ronny (Mograbi wearing a turned-around baseball cap). The surreal identity crisis peaks as the different Mograbis, all now wedded to the darkest possible worldview, criticize, fight and, finally, sexually betray one another.
Mograbi has always made films about the intersection of the personal and the political. “How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon” recounts, through a similar diarist mix of docu and fictionalized confessional, how being given privileged access to power-behind-the-throne Ariel (Arik) Sharon during Netanyahu’s election acts as a form of seduction, luring the filmmaker away from his left-wing purity and increasingly disillusioned wife. In “August,” the personal-political construct begins to fold in upon itself in increasingly grotesque ways, as the country, the family, the filmmaker and the film itself suffer a sort of collective breakdown, ultimately zooming into a solarized close-up of a nervous tic in newly-elected Sharon’s eye.
DV tech credits, almost all by Mograbi, are fine, the deliberately awkward split-screen and video matte work laughably crude but effective.