How does one condense over five decades of history into the limited duration of two hours? By making a hacky, talking-head documentary, obviously. But before asking that, another question should be posed: should one condense over five decades of history into two hours? Well, generally speaking, no — they could consider, instead, just writing a book on the subject to better flesh out its arguments rather than streamlining complicated past events into an artistic medium that doesn’t suit that particular mode of functionality. Even the long-winded title The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation announces both an abridgment of fact (in a semi-cheeky manner) and the obvious shortcomings implicit in that. Hell, 54 years is already cutting it a bit close given the topic — Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, specifically the Gaza Strip — and director Avi Mograbi oddly begins in 1967 (the Six-Day War) instead of 1948 (the Nakba and Palestine war).
But no matter, as these seem to be regarded as simple trivialities in the grander scheme of things, and offering a straightforward account of events isn’t the primary goal here. Mograbi frames his documentary — also given away in that aforementioned long-winded title — as a “how-to” guide on the basics one needs for conquering any given region, using the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as different “steps” one must take. It’s a deeply wrongheaded approach for this given topic, one that ignores a lot of specific context needed about this land and its people, and one that feels like a flimsy excuse to make a documentary in the first place. Mograbi also makes the bizarre choice to be the central ringleader for his endeavor, speaking directly to the audience in Travis Wilkerson-style 4th-wall breaking monologues, all to articulate really banal insights in a deep, “somber” voice so that everyone is sure to get just how serious things are. He even has one where he’s performatively smoking a cigarette whilst delivering a lecture on “spilling blood,” which he’s clearly doing because he himself has to realize how patently goofy most of these are. His formal approach is equally embarrassing: this is a middle school Prezi PowerPoint being sold as cinematic product, gracelessly edited with map stock images of Israel being utilized as transitional slides and featuring one of the ugliest typeface fonts imaginable to utilize as on-screen text — which viewers are forced to look at for a long, long time, as every interviewee has their name hanging on the bottom of the screen for the entirety of their interview. And speaking of these interviews: for a documentary that aims to shed light on Israel’s atrocities, it sure is telling that not one Palestinian voice is heard throughout, let alone a single woman from either county. Guess more time just had to be dedicated to Mograbi hamming it up for his solipsistic retelling of history, making The First 54 Years not simply a failure in a filmic sense, but perhaps more pressingly, as a historical document as well.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.