Arts, Culture & Media

Two Documentaries About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Contention for an Oscar

Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday to choose their 19th parliament and by extension, a new governing coalition. One issue that has not loomed large, however, during this election season is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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But the conflict still gets plenty of attention globally. Take the film industry, for example. Among the five titles nominated for an Academy Award in the best feature documentary category are two films shot in the Holy Land. Both take on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in very different ways.

The film "5 Broken Cameras" is very much a work of citizen journalism. It's about a Palestinian peasant, his family and their village in the West Bank.

Bil'in has been a hotspot for what Palestinians call popular resistance since about 2005. That's when Israel started building its security barrier through the area, cutting off the village from some of its land. And it's where the film begins.

Emad Burnat is narrator, co-director and one of the main characters in this very personal story of the conflict. Burnat shot much of the footage himself over the course of five years, beginning with the start of weekly demonstrations against Israel's fence. He went through five different cameras in the process, as each was damaged during protests.

Near the beginning of the project, Burnat's son Gibreel was born. Burnat seems to keep his camera rolling constantly, capturing some of Gibreel's first words, the ongoing protests, clashes with the Israeli army and arrests of his own family members.

One particular bit of footage shot by Burnat is what convinced Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi to get involved with the project in 2009. It shows an older, heavyset Palestinian man trying to prevent Israeli soldiers from arresting someone by climbing on the hood of their jeep.

"It was a very strong image," Davidi told me. "I asked [Burnat], 'who's this guy?' And he actually told me, 'well, that's my father and he's blocking the jeep from taking my brother to prison.'"

"I thought, 'wow, what a moment," Davidi said. "This is worth telling."

Davidi joined Burnat as co-director. More than any other audience, Davidi said he wants his fellow Israelis to see this Palestinian film.

"The Oscar nomination changes everything for a small film like this," he told me.

And if "5 Broken Cameras" does manage to win an Academy Award, Davidi said he hopes the Israeli government will not be able to refuse him, when he tries to get the film shown in Israeli high schools.

The other long-form documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that's up for an Oscar is called, "The Gatekeepers." Its creator also had the Israeli audience in mind when he got to work. But in just about every other way, these are two very different films.

The Gatekeepers is much larger in scope, covering more than four decades of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The production also has a big-budget feel, with impressively done computer-generated imagery.

There are re-created scenes of targeted assassinations, along with the infamous "Bus 300" incident, when Arab hijackers took control of a bus carrying dozens of Israelis in 1984. And rather than hearing from ordinary citizens, the only characters speaking in this film are six former directors of Israel's intelligence service, the Shin Bet.

"The most important thing," filmmaker Dror Moreh told me from San Francisco, is that, "this message comes from the six heads of the Israeli security forces."

Moreh said it was vital for him to find the right messengers, individuals the Israeli public would take seriously, and to let them deliver an honest assessment of how Israel has handled its conflict with the Palestinians.

"It doesn't come from leftists. It doesn't come from, you know, those people who are used to speak against the occupation. It comes from the heart and the center of the defense establishment in Israel. And all of them. There is no single head of Shin Bet who is not in this film."

Drawn from dozens of hours of interviews with modern Israel's senior-most spymasters, Moreh covers a lot of ground in this film: Israel's response to both intifadas or Palestinian uprisings. Mass detentions and harsh interrogations. Targeted assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders. The emergence of violent Jewish extremists. And the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In a sense, "The Gatekeepers" is more blatantly political than "5 Broken Cameras." Moreh said he wants to convey a sense that Israel's political elites — on both the political right and the left — have failed to deal with the conflict strategically.

He said this has been evident in the current election season in Israel.

"Regrettably," he explained, "I think that the lack of leadership amongst the Israeli leaders is …devastating. It's the most dangerous part of this election."

Moreh might want Israel's occupation to end. But politicians who feel precisely the opposite are poised to do well in this week's election.

A spokesman with Israel's Foreign Ministry, Paul Hirschon told me that he had not seen either of the two films yet, but that he knew what they were all about. Hirschon said the Israeli government welcomes the news that the films are in contention for an Academy Award, even if they are critical of Israeli policy. It's a sign of the maturity of Israel's film scene.

"Art by definition is political," he said. "And if it isn't critical, it's not art."

Hirschon said he hoped that one of the films is picked for an Oscar.

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    In this scene from the film, "5 Broken Cameras," Emad's mother pleads with an Israeli soldier to release her son Khaled after he was arrested. (Photo: 5 Broken Cameras)

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    In this scene from the film, "5 Broken Cameras," Emad's mother pleads with an Israeli soldier to release her son Khaled after he was arrested. (Photo: 5 Broken Cameras)