November 20, 2019

Oscar contenders focus on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Two films on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are in the final lap of five Oscar contenders for best documentary feature.

“The Gatekeepers” is told from the perspective of the six men who headed Israel’s Shin Bet internal security and counter-terrorism apparatus over the past three decades, tough men who oversaw such operations as the targeted assassinations of Hamas and other terrorist leaders.

“5 Broken Cameras” is a chronicle filmed by a Palestinian farmer of his village’s resistance against a rising Israeli settlement, including his footage of the soldiers who tried to squelch the villagers’ protests.

Two more opposing backgrounds and viewpoints are hard to imagine. Yet, surprisingly, the protagonists in each of these documentaries come to much the same conclusion — that the Israeli government has been, and is, on the wrong track, and that military force alone will neither solve the conflict nor assure the Jewish state’s survival.

The tone in “Cameras” is emotional, while “Gatekeepers” is more intellectualized, but both prove that Israelis will accept a level of criticism, from within and without, that likely would  seem daunting for most Americans to stomach, or for mainstream Hollywood to depict.

If that wasn’t enough, Israel’s government actually helped pay for production of both films.

Asked for an explanation of this phenomenon, Dror Moreh, director of “Gatekeepers,” said in an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, “We Jews are masters of self-criticism. It’s in our genes.”

The six Shin Bet men vary as much as the prime ministers who appointed them, from Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres to Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, but they all share a hard-headed intellect and a disdain for most of Israel’s politicians, past and present.

Avraham Shalom (Shin Bet head from 1980 to 1986), the oldest of the six, fought in the pre-state underground, helped track down and kidnap Adolf Eichmann, and pursued both the Arab perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and extremist Jewish West Bank settlers.

An avuncular-looking type, dressed in a plaid shirt and red suspenders, Shalom sets much of the tone for his successors. All generally agree that despite all rebuffs and failures, Israel must try to negotiate with any or all Palestinian factions to overcome deeply embedded stereotypes and take some tentative steps on the path to peace.

“Negotiate with anyone?” interviewer Moreh asks somewhat incredulously. “Yes, anyone,” Shalom answers, even Hamas and even Islamic Jihad.

Yaakov Peri (1988-1995) was the key figure in battling the Second Intifada, setting up a vast network of Palestinian informers and collaborators and allegedly authorizing “exceptional practices” during Shin Bet interrogations.

Yet, in the film, Peri speaks of his reflections on “the memories etched deep inside you. … When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.”

Moreh filmed some 72 hours of interviews, with additional time spent culling graphic archival footage that is interspersed throughout the documentary. His most surprising moment, he said, came when interviewing Yuval Diskin, every inch an army officer and master spy, who served as Shin Bet’s head from 2005 to 2011.

Moreh asked Diskin for his reaction to a quote from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a far-left academic, asserting that Israel’s control over the West Bank will lead to the Jewish state’s inexorable moral corruption.

Moreh said he was astonished when Diskin nodded in agreement, saying, “Every word is [written] in stone.”

Imagine an equivalent film made in America, where six former FBI and CIA directors face the cameras and denounce the policies of the presidents who appointed them.

Moreh’s own dismay is of a different nature. He asked a reporter why American Jews, who, like Israelis, belong “to the most opinionated race on earth,” don’t criticize Israeli policies more.

Moreh, 51 and a muscular 6-foot-2, served in the first Lebanon War in the early 1980s and describes himself as a “political centrist.”

His interviews for the film, he said, left him depressed about the future of Israel, what he sees as the country’s lack of political leadership, and the growing strength of Israel’s extreme right. “Most of the crazies,” he added, “come from the United States.”

“Gatekeepers” was made on a budget of $1.5 million, a hefty sum for an Israeli production, of which 10 percent came from the government-funded Israel Film Council.

Emad Burnat, the cameraman, narrator and co-director of “5 Broken Cameras,” lives in a world far removed from the well-educated, commanding Shin Bet chiefs of “Gatekeepers.”

He is a Palestinian farmer whose family has cultivated the land of Bi’lin, a village of 1,900 inhabitants just east of the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank.

When his fourth son, Gibreel, is born in 2005, he gets a video camera to record the boy’s infancy and childhood and the surrounding village life.

At about the same time, the religious settlement of Modi’in Illit, overlooking Bi’lin, goes up, protected by a fence barring the villagers from much of their own farmland and olive groves.

The villagers respond with a campaign of nonviolent resistance, marked each Friday by demonstrations that are part protest march and part street theater.

Israeli soldiers are called in to prevent the villagers from marching on the settlement, which escalates the confrontation into opposing volleys, as the villagers throw stones and the soldiers respond with tear gas grenades.

The Israeli Supreme Court eventually rules that the fence must be moved away from Bi’lin and closer to the settlement, restoring much of the arable land to the farmers, but it takes years to enforce the court decision.

Burnat, an amateur photographer, and his camera are ever-present in the thick of all this, to the annoyance of the soldiers. Although some blood is spilled later, the initial casualties are his cameras, which get smashed, replaced and smashed again.

Five cameras go down, but the sixth is still doing duty today, Burnat said by phone from Bi’lin.

Everywhere he goes, Burnat brings along his growing son, the wide-eyed Gibreel, and the scenes between the two, and with Burnat’s wife, lend a homey charm to “Cameras.”

In one domestic scene, Burnat’s wife upbraids him for endangering the family’s safety with his constant filming of confrontations. Asked for his reaction during the interview, Burnat bravely answered, “I never listen to my wife. I was on a mission to film the village struggle.”

Among the sympathizers from Israel and other countries who joined the Bi’lin protesters was Guy Davidi, a Tel Aviv filmmaker, who befriended Burnat and his family.

Two years ago, Burnat showed his huge cache of video footage to Davidi, with the idea of fashioning it into a documentary. Davidi signed on as co-director and producer, raising $334,000, including $120,000 from Israeli government and private sources.

From inception to Oscar nomination, the history of “5 Broken Cameras” reads like an unalloyed success story, but it wouldn’t be the Middle East if some conflict didn’t roil the waters.

What happened is this: When it was announced that these two documentaries had qualified for the Oscar finals, some Israeli and U.S. Jewish media proudly headlined their reports as an unprecedented feat by “two Israeli films.”

That claim justifiably angered Burnat, opened him to criticism from his Palestinian compatriots and led to an instant boycott of the film in Arab countries.

Burnat, who has also taught himself English, Hebrew and Portuguese (his wife was born in Brazil), protested during the interview, “This is a Palestinian film. It’s about my village, and mine is the major contribution.”

Actually, the reality is a bit more complex. Under Academy Award rules, documentaries are not entered by countries (as is the case for foreign-language feature movies), but by individual filmmakers and their distributors. For instance, documentary features are usually submitted by a number of different American filmmakers.

So, “Cameras” is officially labeled as a Palestinian-Israeli-French co-production, and Davidi acknowledged that the “two Israeli films” headlines misleadingly “erased Burnat’s personality.”

Still, the controversy has left a bitter aftertaste, especially for Burnat.

“Cameras” also illustrates one other point. As in most other films by Palestinians, Israeli characters may be depicted as unwelcome interlopers, but they are not made into monsters or Nazis.

Thus, the Israeli soldiers in “Cameras” do not seem to enjoy facing civilians; they do not insult them, and in a semi-comic scene, soldiers trying to enter a Palestinian home are pushed out by the angry women inside.

Ironically, highly negative portrayals of Israelis appear more often in self-lacerating Israeli-made movies than in Palestinian ones.

Davidi offered one explanation for this oddity. “Many of the West Bank Palestinians have worked in Israel as construction workers, gardeners and so forth. They speak our language and know more about us than we know about them. Even if they hate us, they understand something about the complexity of our society.”

“Gatekeepers” and “Cameras” are up against some stiff competition by the other three contenders. However, both Burnat and Davidi said they would attend the award ceremonies in Hollywood on Feb. 24 — even if they have to wear tuxedos.

There will be a sneak preview of “The Gatekeepers” on Jan. 27 at 10 a.m. at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Former Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon will participate in a Q&A session, moderated by Jewish Journal President David Suissa. Tickets to the event, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival and the Journal, are free, but reservations are required at or (800) 838-3006.