While the excellent winner of the Ophir (Israel’s Oscars) for Best Picture, Sundance Film Festival entry Fill the Void, didn’t make the cut for the Best Foreign Film category, the Oscar nominee list still features an impressive slate from Israel. In fact, it’s doubly represented in the Best Documentary Feature race, by The Gatekeepers, from Israeli Dror Moreh, and 5 Broken Cameras from Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. These two films have been selected as the crowning achievements of nonfiction filmmaking, and it doesn’t provide anything close to a positive view of Israel.
The Gatekeepers has been widely praised as a groundbreaking exposé which brings to light the unexpected opinions of the six living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. All of Moreh’s interview subjects express a sincere lack of confidence in the attitude the Israeli government has held and currently holds towards the Palestinian people. When I spoke with Moreh, he said that this is an important film for the world to see, to comprehend that Israelis can be critical of their government’s policies. Yet it is an enormously destructive and dangerous film, one which provides no context for its preconceived notions. An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post breaks down the way in which Moreh’s film completely ignores the prevalence of terrorism. During our conversation, Moreh admitted that the Palestinians are also to blame for the lack of progress in the Middle East, yet his film irresponsibly fails to include anything to support that belief.
5 Broken Cameras, on the other hand, provides a narrow frame of focus, as Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat has five cameras destroyed while attempting to document the activities of Israeli settlers and the army’s response to the activism prompted by it. The context of the film is less problematic, but its message is equally troubling. Burnat creates his film to showcase his mission as akin to that of an oppressed people fighting up against its militant rulers, comparable to recent documentary subjects like Burma VJ (Burma), The Square (Egypt), and This Is Not a Film (Iran). Burnat’s story is disturbing most for the unfortunate trajectory of events that befalls him, which include the death of one of his good friends and a serious injury he sustains that leads to exorbitant medical bills. Regardless of the legitimacy of his cause, Burnat repeatedly defies explicit warnings to stop filming and uses the concept of nonviolent resistance as a catch-all defense for his revolutionary behavior. At one point in the film, Burnat’s wife asks her son how he felt when he came face-to-face with Israeli soldiers, repeatedly and belligerently suggesting that he must have been scared, a sentiment he eventually echoes after several moments of silence. It’s no surprise that achieving both peace and civility is difficult within a culture in which hatred is propagated for the other from a young age.
Both The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras are understandably tough films to watch for those passionate about Israel, wherever on the spectrum viewers may fall. As films, the former is manipulative in the construction of its argument, while the latter clearly stems more from a clear and visible personal passion that aligns with the filmmaker’s own life and pursuits. Taken together as two-fifths of the best in nonfiction film in 2012, it offers a worryingly negative perception of Israel that may be all too prevalent in Hollywood.