Award season is in full swing in Los Angeles, and, for the first time in the history of the Academy Awards, two films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are in competition for best documentary feature. For those of us invested in a just resolution to the conflict, a closer reading of these films can help decipher the meaning of this extraordinary attention.
The Gatekeepers is a classical talking-heads documentary. What sets it apart from other films in this genre is the identity of the heads doing the talking: six men who have led Israel’s Shin Bet, or Internal Security Service, from the early days of the state until the present. The film is deftly structured and moves effortlessly from history, which is served up with archival footage, to strategic analysis, which is provided against the backdrop of slick computer-generated listening rooms. The heart of the film comes through in the difficult ethical questions that Israeli director Dror Moreh occasionally interjects from behind the camera.
The concept of The Gatekeepers, which Moreh continues to hammer home in his many public statements, is that these six men, who have been charged with keeping Israel safe throughout the decades, all agree that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip must end.
From an Israeli perspective, this is a rhetorical gambit from a member of the decimated left: “listen to these people,” Moreh seems to be pleading with his compatriots. These political nuances will be lost on the American public, but The Gatekeepers fits nicely into the bizarre cultural regression we are currently experiencing in the United States with shows like Homeland and films like Zero Dark Thirty. The aesthetic of The Gatekeepers plays to our fetishization of counterterrorism and its voyeuristic technologies.
What about the Palestinian perspective? Unfortunately, The Gatekeepers reduces the Palestinians to abstract ethical entities in ticking-time-bomb scenarios. Granted, this derives from the general conceit of a film that chooses to narrow its focus to these six men, but the outcome is that the only Palestinians we spend time thinking about are “terrorist masterminds.”
Worse, one of the chapters of the film is titled “Victory Is To See You Suffer.” This comes from the former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon who credits the statement to Jabril Rajoub of the Palestinian Authority. Incredibly, Ayalon tells us that hearing Rajoub say this is what finally forced him to empathize with the Palestinians in their struggle.
In contrast, 5 Broken Cameras, is all about the Palestinian perspective. The footage that co-director Emad Burnat shot over five years at the weekly unarmed demonstrations in his village of Bilin, has an immediacy that shatters the high production value seductions of The Gatekeepers.
Made for a fraction of the cost that it took to produce that film, 5 Broken Cameras is like a punch to the gut. There is almost no historical context provided, but Burnat’s narration achieves an emotional resonance that only a first-person account can.
The Israeli co-director Guy Davidi wisely structured the film around the lifetime of the various cameras that Burnat used to document his life, each of which were eventually broken. Burnat and Davidi’s film is political in a less overt, but more subversive way than Moreh’s. It bypasses the calcified rhetoric that so often characterizes discussions of Israel and the Palestinians and cuts straight to the heart.
Like Julia Bacha’s Budrus before it, 5 Broken Cameras confronts the viewer with a reality that would be hard to believe if you weren’t watching it with your own eyes and hearing it with your own ears.
World waking up?
So what does the nomination of these two films tell us about where our culture stands on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians? Like the recent diplomatic revolt at the UN which led to the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state, I believe this to be a sign that the world is finally waking up to the fact that something is rotten in the State of Israel. That something, however, is still being misidentified as the occupation of 1967. The truth, of course, is that the occupation is but a symptom of a rot that runs much deeper. The problem is Israeli ethnocracy.
The fact that Israel is not a state for all its citizens and never has been is the reason that a majority of the Palestinian people live in exile as refugees. It is also the reason that the Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to live as second-class citizens. The military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip persists, because were Israel to grant citizenship to the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, it would cease to be a Jewish-majority state.
Israel’s logic is therefore motivated by a model of nationalism that is hostile to the fundamental democratic value of equality. The occupation as seen through the lens of both The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras offers clear and irrefutable evidence of Israeli ethnocracy. But the occupation itself is neither the cause of, nor the solution to the conflict.
Will The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras have an impact on Israeli audiences? Unfortunately, I think not. There are already indications that The Gatekeepers has been met with indifference from the Israeli public and it looks like Davidi is facing an uphill battle in getting 5 Broken Cameras to screen to Israeli youth.
Might this change if one of the films wins an Academy Award at the end of the month? I’m pessimistic. As the recent Israeli elections demonstrated, the conflict with the Palestinians is no longer an issue that most Israelis care about. But the world is watching. And these films, along with the injustice reflected in them, now have a global audience.
Eli Ungar-Sargon is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has been working on a documentary about the Israel-Palestine conflict for the past four years. The film is now entering the final stages of post-production.