The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual For Military Occupation

The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual For Military Occupation is a documentary about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, framed as an instructive manual for the audience on how to occupy a territory on a long-term basis. Avi Mograbi, the filmmaker, directs his instructions straight to camera, directs them in the second person – this is how you go about an occupation, this is how you go about suppressing dissent.

Unlike so many films about the Israeli occupation, this film is not made by Palestinians, trying to get the word of their suffering out into the world. It is made by Israelis, and is composed largely of testimonies of ex-Israeli soldiers, speaking of their first-hand experience as part of the machinery of occupation. It is a film made by Israelis for an Israeli audience, talking about the reality and responsibility that must be taken for the occupation. The address to ‘you’, direct to camera, makes explicit the shared culpability in what exists.

Now, it can be a dicey area, having a discussion about oppression with only those on the oppressing side at the table. My worry would be it would descend into that Frankie Boyle joke about the Americans and the Vietnam war – that not only will they kill your people, they’ll come back 15 years later to make a film about how killing your people made their soldiers sad. But that’s not what this is at all. The First 54 Years shines a light on the people who make occupation happen, the faceless, nameless, anonymous soldiers whose daily actions perpetuate the occupation as a reality for those who live under it. It strips them of their invisibility and makes them accountable for what actions they took and what actions they failed to take. It shows the treatment of Palestinians as not some misfortune of history, whose misery has become almost seen as natural to us now, as if it simply rains bombs over Gaza instead of water. But someone is firing those bombs, someone is shooting those people, and these atrocities don’t just happen – they are done.

The manner in which the ex-soldiers speak is very matter-of-fact. The describe a reality that was, there is very little moral grandstanding or debate. Many stories follow the same format – this was the order, this was how it was carried out. But that’s not to say that their retelling is flat. Just the opposite. In their recounting is all the weariness of numbness to brutality, the everyday indifference to the absurd you find in a warzone, and the sharp, breaking clarity when the horror of what is going on finds a way to break on you afresh.

Many of the ex-soldiers were kids who were drafted into the military. They talk about how easily they accepted the normality of what they were being trained to do, unquestioningly. That they would run drills on local villages, not because anyone in that village had done anything, but because the new recruits needed to practice how to raid a village. The soldiers from the 90s and later talk about how it was as if it was a video game, some shoot-em-up they had been put in front of. The machine gun on the hill, and how guys would come on their lunch break, and line up to take a turn, spraying the city with bullets.

And what they all seemed to convey, over and over again, was how rudderless this whole thing was. How absurd. How they would be sent to an address and told to pull the place apart, and they would not know who they were looking for or what they were looking for. There just had to be *something*. And how they would lift men out their bed in the dead of night, cuff and hood him, beat the shit out him, and transport him to the nearest base for detention, only to find out he was being held for not paying his electricity bill. The whole thing just felt so abritrary.

As the soldiers serving in the 70s give way to the more recent generations serving in the 2000s, the sheen comes off the apple almost entirely, the mask slips, and the pretence of propaganda drops. No longer is even lip service paid to idea of targeting terrorists. The nightly duty is to ‘map’ a neighbourhood, by going door-to-door at 4am, and wake up everyone inside, to photograph and map the layout of each room, and make a list of everyone sleeping under that roof. And they were told the ‘why’ for this was not that this would produce any valuable intelligence, but simply to instill in the general populace the understanding that there would not be a night where they would go undisturbed or unsearched. That quite openly, the purpose was to grind them down, and put the fear of god in them.

So what do you get, after the first 54 years? Mograbi’s end is one of pessimism, that unless Israel faces the reality of what it has done and continues to do, that the conflict will only escalate in brutality, with no expectation or even hope of peace. That Israelis and Palestinians have both come to see this as an unwinnable war, and the goal has devolved from victory over the other to simply spreading the suffering.

This is how you run a military occupation, it says, with terror, and torture, and death. How do you want to continue?

The Story of Looking

So, a couple of things went up like flares that the filmmaker might be a twat. He starts the film lying naked in bed talking the camera next to him, like you’re lying on the other pillow, in this suffocatingly heavy-handed visual metaphor for being brought into an intimate and personal story. As he lectures the camera, I noticed his naked torso and arms were covered in tattoos, the signatures of famous people, in various fonts and scripts. I began to feel the dread that I’d somehow woken to discover I’d slept with yet another film fuckboy. He mentions he’s speaking from his flat in the centre of Edinburgh and the feeling of doom is complete.

The needless cockshot later in the film is almost surplus confirmation at that point.

So, is this self-indulgent pretentious bilge? Yes. Is it worthless? No.

The Story of Looking is an essay/poem/memoir on what visual culture means to the filmmaker, what looking is. The film explores art in photography, painting, film, and performance, while talking about the development of our sight in infancy and childhood. And there is a lot of interesting stuff said. He talks about growing up in a working class Catholic family, where the glory of God made manifest in art, in architecture, in beholding creation, was seen as positive good of looking. And how, when he got older and moved into a middle-class presbyterian environment, the act of looking was seen as a negative, that it was a shallow practice, open to deceit and distraction, in opposition to the transcendental nature of reading and inner imagination and thought.

He talks about the separation between light and colour, their respective forms and functions, in life and in art. He talks about the experiences of those missing colour through colour-blindness, or light through complete blindness. He talks about focus and blur, the blur of vision, the blur of memory, the blur of ruined film or smudged paint or ink.

The hook he hangs this semi-structured ramble on is that he has begun to develop a cataract in one eye, and it will be removed and replaced with an artificial lens. It is for this reason he beats you about the head with how personal and intimate this soliloquy is, up to and including flashing you his knob.

Except it’s not intimate or personal. It’s the opposite of that. He intellectualises the subject into the abstract, distancing us and himself from any emotion the prospect of his sight being lost or changed is actually causing him. Despite being literally brought into the folds of his skin, he could not push the audience further away than with this intellectual exercise.

As I’m educated on the use of light and colour in film, I spend 90 minutes learning almost nothing about Mark Cousins. And his sense of trepidation about his operation is effaced completely with this aria to visual culture. And beautiful though much of it is, it does what any intellectual exercise does – leaves me cold.

My Name Is Pauli Murray

Wow. Like, wow. There is so much I didn’t know.

Not a stranger to African-American history or feminist history, but still never heard of Pauli Murray. And after watching this film, it seems incredible that could happen.

Who was Pauli Murray? Pauli Murray was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in the segregated South 14 years before Rosa Parks. She brought a legal challenge to the Jim Crow laws behind her arrest and used it as a platform to speak out against racism and segregation. She wrote a paper against the Separate But Equal doctrine, showing how it contravened the 14th amendment of the Constitution while she was a legal student, and was derided by other students and dismissed by her professor – the same professor who went on to use the arguments in her paper while bringing Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, securing one of the most major wins of the Civil Rights Movement and sending a wrecking ball into the legal basis for segregation.

While working with the ACLU, Murray argued in White v. Crook that the 14th amendment covered discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, succeeding in allowing women, as well as black men, to sit on juries in Alabama. 6 years later, her argument would be credited by Ruth Bader Ginsberg when she brought the same argument before the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed, which upheld that discrimination on the basis of sex was in contravention of the 14th amendment of the Constitution.

She coined the term ‘Jane Crow’, and wrote about the intersectional oppression of African-American women on the basis of their sex and race. She co-founded NOW, the National Organization for Women, alongside Betty Friedan. She had a lifelong correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, who requested her appointment to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women’s Committee on Political and Civil Rights. She got Eleanor to use her influence on President Roosevelt in the case of a black sharecropper who had shot dead his white landlord, and he privately spoke to the Governor of Virginia to ask him to commute his death sentence.

Murray also worked for labour rights as part of the Workers’ Defense League. She taught Law in the newly independent Ghana, and how decolonisation was an opportunity to realise human rights. She organised student activists while at Howard University, and staged sit-ins in all-white diners with fellow women students 17 years before the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins of the 60s.

She was a writer, an essayist, a memoirist, and a poet.

She was the first African-American to get a Law Doctorate from Yale. She was the one of the first African-Americans, alongside James Baldwin, to be admitted to the McDowell artists’ residency. She became the first woman and the first African-American to get a residential college named after her at Yale. She was the first African-American woman to become a US Episcopal priest, and 2012 was named as an Episcopal saint.

She also may have been a trans man. Or perhaps transmasculine genderqueer. While during their life, they used she pronouns, now it would probably be more appropriate to use they or they/she. They spent their life perpetually in conflict with their assigned gender. They underwent surgery to find a pair of undescended testes that they were sure must be inside them, as it would explain so much about why they did not feel as though they were fully female. They spent their life seeking a doctor who would give them testosterone, as they were sure injections of the hormone were needed to correct an imbalance in their body. They struggled their whole life to find a language to put into words what they were feeling and who they were.

They described to doctors that they may be an ‘invert’, using the parlance at the time which covered lesbians, trans people, and even just butch or non-conforming women. Their loving relationships were exclusively with women. They were unable to be out during their lifetime, but they did have the support of their partner of almost 25 years, Irene.

It is so good to see a film which celebrates the contributions of gender minorities to the feminist cause. The feminist movements and achievements that we have today, are down the work, support, unity, and leadership of all those denied the privilege of the cis male gender.

Murray’s worldview was shaped by a life lived across arbitrary division. As a person of mixed racial heritage, with both black and white ancestors, that opportunities should be afforded to those labelled White and not Black was ridiculous, unjust, and cruel. As a person whose gender experience crossed the binary between man and woman, that a person’s potential should be denied or curtailed because they are labelled Female and not Male was preposterous, unfair, and obscene. They fought injustice everywhere they found it.

This film does a good job of boiling down an expansive life, each aspect of which could span a movie in its own right, to the the central thread of who Pauli Murray was – someone filled with deep compassion, who felt keenly the injustices of the world, and who worked tirelessly in every corner of their talents to promote understanding, empathy, and the shared bond of humanity. Pauli Murray is someone who sought only the successful outcome of their cause, and never pushed to the front for the limelight, or to establish personal glory. Pauli is seen in many photos of the century’s most recognisable figures, standing at the back or sat just to the side, almost a shadow in each great historical moment. And it is perhaps because of this effacing of ego, that it is necessary for us that come after to remember.

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