Gadfly documaker Avi Mograbi shares his thoughts on the right of return with Palestinian friend Ali Al-Azhari in the thought-provoking “Once I Entered a Garden.” Much in keeping with the helmer’s personal-essay style (“Avenge but One of My Two Eyes”), the docu interlaces intellectual and poetic meditations on the concept of home and belonging from the perspectives of Mograbi, a half-Levantine Jew, and Al-Azhari, an Arab in Tel Aviv. Tragically, their longing for a pre-WWII Middle East of (relatively) peaceful coexistence seems farther away than ever. Fests and Israeli film showcases can parlay screenings into lively discussions.
The opening does not bode well as Mograbi and Al-Azhari, a professor of Arabic, engage in an onanistically intellectual, near-Talmudic parsing of language and definition in Al-Azhari’s apartment. Soon, however, the two friends share family stories as Al-Azhari pulls out a 1938 phone directory from Greater Syria and locates Mograbi’s mother’s family in Beirut, Damascus and Palestine. Like many Ottoman Jews, Mograbi’s maternal ancestors spoke Arabic, not Hebrew, and reluctantly came to Israel only when the region’s post-colonial nations made it clear that Jews were not wanted.
Al-Azhari’s situation is the flip side of the coin: He was born into a Muslim family in Saffuriyya (present-day Tzippori) in Galilee. Whereas Mograbi’s family can’t go back to its ancestral homes in neighboring countries, Al-Azhari can’t go back to his home in his own country. When the friends, joined by Al-Azhari’s young daughter Yasmin, take a road trip to Tzippori, they’re greeted by a sign in Hebrew and Arabic strictly forbidding non-residents from trespassing. Obviously aimed at the former citizens of Saffuriyya, the blatantly racist sign makes a painfully uncomfortable Yasmin urge them all to leave, though, since her mother is Jewish, one wonders how the Israeli government legally categorizes her.
Ultimately, “Once I Entered a Garden” questions the meaning of the law of return, an expression generally used for the right of all Jews to live in Israel, but Mograbi’s far broader take on the concept asks why return isn’t possible for everyone expelled from their homelands. At times it’s apparent that Al-Azhari has been considering these issues much longer than the helmer has — unsurprising given that expulsion, barriers and prejudice have been a part of the professor’s life since childhood. As a Palestinian, he’s unwanted in Israel, where he lives, and also unwanted in Arab countries, whose vocal support for the cause is often paired with a disdain for Palestinians as individuals.
Woven within these personal tales are Super 8 images of streets and buildings that resonate with a nostalgic yearning, accompanied by a French voiceover (movingly spoken by Hiam Abbass), reading letters sent by a woman to a lover who emigrated to Israel from Beirut. It’s unclear whether these are real letters or written for the docu, but their expressions of longing, combined with evocations of a multicultural, international Beirut, beautifully conjure a lost world.
Ending the docu at least five minutes earlier would leave a more powerful impact, though the weak finale won’t affect the pic’s reception. Digital elements have a homemovie feel that works with the personal message, but music could be better interpolated.