Pictures Speak Volumes in Oscar-nominated Israeli Films

Israelis have been revelling in the prospect of an Oscar night triumph next week, with two Israeli-financed films among the five in the running for Best Documentary. But the country’s right-wing government is reported to be quietly fuming that the films, both of which portray Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in a critical light, have garnered so much attention following their nominations.

Guy Davidi, the Israeli co-director of 5 Broken Cameras, one of the finalists, said industry insiders had warned him that pressure was being exerted on the Academy to stop the films winning the award.

“Many people in Hollywood are working very hard to make sure that neither film wins,” he said. “From Israel’s point of view, an Oscar would be a public relations disaster and mean more people get to see our films.”

The film is a searing account by Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat of a six-year period in his West Bank village during which the residents protested non-violently against an Israeli wall that cut off their farmland.

Israeli soldiers are shown beating, tear-gassing and shooting the villagers and solidarity activists.

The other Israeli-backed contender, The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh, features confessions by all six former heads of the Shin Bet, the main agency overseeing Israel’s occupation, since 1980. All are deeply critical of Israel’s rule over the Palestinians, with one even comparing it to the Nazis’ occupation of Europe.

Both films have won critical acclaim. This month The Gatekeepers won the Cinema for Peace Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film has also been picked up by a major distributor, Sony Pictures Classics.

With the Israeli media abuzz over the country’s Oscar hopes, the columnist Gideon Levy observed: “This is not a matter of Israeli pride but rather of Israeli chutzpah. … Israel should be ashamed of what these movies bring to light.”

Despite the publicity, showings of the films in Israel have been mainly limited to circles of intellectuals and left-wing activists.

Davidi said requests to the education ministry to put 5 Broken Cameras on the civics curriculum had been rebuffed. That appears to be in line with official efforts to avoid drawing attention to the documentaries.

The culture ministry, run by Limor Livnat, a hawkish ally of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, broke its silence to make a short, caustic comment. A spokesman, Meir Bardugo, said: “Israeli cinema doesn’t have to be anti-Israeli.”

Responding to claims from local film executives that Livnat had put pressure on them to start making films showing Israel in “a sweeter light”, Bardugo added: “If Livnat would interfere, these two films wouldn’t get to the Oscars.”

Paradoxically for the government, Israel’s claim to 5 Broken Cameras is disputed. Emad Burnat, the other co-director, said: “It’s my story. I am Palestinian and the film is about the struggle of my village in Palestine. If it wins, it will be a victory for Palestine, not Israel.”

Unlike the Best Foreign Language Film category, Oscar-nominated documentaries are not classified according to country. 5 Broken Cameras received US$250,000 (Dh918,000) from Israeli and French government film funds.

Nonetheless, the dispute echoes previous Oscar controversies, including claims that the Academy refused to consider Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention in 2002 because it did not recognise Palestine as a state, and a statement by Skandar Copti, the Palestinian-Israeli co-director of Ajami, that he would not “represent Israel” in the 2010 Oscars.

Both 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers exploit to the full the exclusive access the filmmakers had to their subject matter.

The former records in troubling detail confrontations between the Israeli army and the villagers, including a sensational scene in which a soldier fires directly at Burnat. The bullet lodges in his camera lens and saves his life.

However, of the two films, The Gatekeepers has polarised opinion most sharply in Israel and among many American Jews because its criticisms of the occupation are made from consummate insiders.

At a festival screening in Jerusalem last year, some audience members were reported to have shouted “Traitors!” at the former Shin Bet heads who attended.

Writing in the US weekly The Jewish Press this month, the psychology professor Phyllis Chesler argued that the $1.5 million-budget film followed “a lethal narrative script against the Jewish state”.

But the CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour described The Gatekeepers as “full of stunning revelations”. It is rare for senior officials to break a code of silence designed to shield their activities from scrutiny.

The film was made in absolute secrecy, according to the director. “I knew I had dynamite in my hands.”

Moreh is scathing of Netanyahu for his inaction on Palestinian statehood, calling him “the biggest danger to Israelis”. The antipathy has apparently been reciprocated. Netanyahu’s spokesman has told the media that the prime minister has no plans to see the film.

Another new Israeli documentary, The Law in These Parts, which has been competing in festivals alongside 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers, is causing similar unease among officials.

In it, some of the country’s top legal minds admit that their job was to create arbitrary and oppressive laws to control Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Lia Tarachansky, an Israeli-Canadian filmmaker whose documentary Seven Deadly Myths interviews ageing former soldiers about the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, said the new films were groundbreaking: “For the first time people who know the system from the inside are providing a very precise, even clinical, picture of the structure of the occupation.”

She echoed Davidi’s fears that pro-Israel lobbyists were trying to stop critical films reaching a mainstream audience. “There is a lot of blind support for Israel in the industry.”

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.