Two feted Israeli films provoke pride and anger

Some fear the political critique of the gov't in ‘5 Broken Cameras’, ‘The Gatekeepers’ is no more than self hatred.

The Gatekeepers (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Gatekeepers
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Both Israeli films on the short list for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar category – Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers and Emad Burnat’s and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras – received Academy Award nominations when the nominees were announced Thursday, and the news set off great excitement in the Israeli film industry. But there were also cries of dismay from those who are concerned that the films portray Israel in a negative light.
Both films, which have already won multiple awards around the world (The Gatekeepers was named Best Documentary by the National Society of Film Critics about a week ago and 5 Broken Cameras received the Best World Cinema Documentary directing prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival) were on a short list of 15 movies chosen by the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last month.
Documentaries from all over the world are eligible for this category, and do not represent their country in any official sense, the way the movies nominated for Best Foreign Language Film do.
Naturally, there was jubilation on the part of the two nominated directors. Dror Moreh, whose film The Gatekeepers features in-depth interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), told The Jerusalem Post, “It is a great honor for me to be nominated for Best Documentary in the 85th annual Oscars.”
His film, in which the heads of Shin Bet are scathingly critical of governments that gave them little direction and in which they end up sounding – jarringly – like peace activists on the far Left, has already been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for release in the US.
Moreh, who is working to turn the film into a longer series for Channel One, is unabashedly political and added, “I feel embarrassed that in my country two weeks prior to the election none of the leaders besides [Tzipi] Livni speaks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have become a country living in denial. Aside from that, it will be cool to walk on that red carpet with all those stars you see only on cinema halls.”
5 Broken Cameras chronicles how Davidi’s co-director, Emad Burnat, who bought a camera to film home videos, ended up recording six years of family life against the backdrop of weekly Palestinian demonstrations against the construction of the West Bank defense barrier through his village of Bilin. Davidi found himself with some mixed feelings following the jubilation in the Israeli media that followed the Oscar announcement.
“First of all, let me say I was very, very happy personally, and I was happy for Emad and all the villagers that are in the struggle and all the Israeli and Palestinian activists. It’s their story. I am just the storyteller. And I’m very happy for them,” he told the Jerusalem Post the morning after the nominations were announced. “But this is not a category where you represent the state [like the Best Foreign Language Film category]. And it doesn’t represent the state.”
He is concerned that while the Israeli media was trumpeting Israel’s two nods and members of the government were expressing pride at the achievement – the Foreign Affairs Ministry posting a glowing announcement on its website – that on the other hand they would not support showings of the films in schools here.
“It’s not included in the culture basket that is available to schools,” Davidi said. “I have to say that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has two faces. It wants to claim ownership of the film’s success in some ways, but does not support the film in Israel.”
Documentaries have been a particularly strong component in the renaissance in the Israeli film industry in recent years, so it was actually a surprise to discover that although four Israeli feature films from have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars in the past five years – Beaufort, Waltz with Bashir, Ajami and Footnote – no Israeli documentary had ever received a nomination before.
The documentary short Strangers No More, about a school with many children of foreign workers in Tel Aviv, won an Oscar in 2011. But Israel has never before been recognized in the feature documentary category.
The Israeli film industry that has supported 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers justifiably felt pride.
“It’s extraordinary,” said Lia van Leer, founder and co-director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, where both films had their Israeli premieres last summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The Jerusalem Cinematheque’s website added an announcement that read: “The Jerusalem Cinematheque-Israel Film Archive would like to send its warmest regards and congratulations to the filmmakers of 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers, which were both successfully shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, for their Oscar nominations for Best Documentary, an extraordinary achievement. The Jerusalem Cinematheque is proud to present both films this month.”
The fact that these films are critical of Israeli government policy set off a backlash of sorts against both of these films in the media. Facebook was filled with posts about how these films represented “typical Israeli selfflagellation,” although when questioned, many of the posters admitted that they had not seen the movies.
The descriptions of the films alone had convinced them that these films would dishonor Israel rather than illuminate a complex situation.
In the Jewish Press’ online edition, under the headline, “Two Israeli Films Harshly Critical of Israel Get Oscar Nods: Of course, both movies portray Israel in a negative light, so calm down before kvelling,” Lori Lowenthal Marcus writes: “Both films portray Israelis as primarily violent thugs who are intent on oppressing the Arab Palestinians.”
The fact that the former Shin Bet heads are, for the most part, extremely self-critical and mindful of the human suffering their actions have caused does not seem to have made an impression on these critics of the two films. Nor does the fact that many Israeli activists choose to stand alongside the Palestinians in Bilin and participate in the protests.
There will be plenty of time for more debate before the winners are announced in the widely watched, glitzy ceremony in Hollywood on February 24.