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Occupation goes to the Oscars - but films carry very different messages

Both Oscar-nominated documentaries from this region are important documents of Israeli occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their own right. But if ‘The Gatekeepers’ wins, it will whitewash occupation by presenting Israeli guilt in a redeeming light. If ‘Five Broken Cameras’ wins, it will go beyond the message that what Israel is doing is wrong and show the world exactly what wrong looks like – and just how ugly it is.


Adeeb Abu Rahme, one of the residents of Bil’in who appears in 5 Broken Cameras, confronts the IDF during a protest in 2007 (Activestills)

The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras have already succeeded in breaking one of Israel’s biggest taboos: airing out its dirty laundry on the big screen, for the whole world to see. Now the two films are both heading to the biggest stage of all: the Academy Awards.

If either one of the films from Israel/Palestine wins in the Best Documentary category, it will be a symbolic achievement for all those who believe Israeli government policies and the occupation are untenable and want to see it held accountable for the violent cycle Israelis and Palestinians continue to be in.

But there are salient and important differences between the films. Most obviously, The Gatekeepers provides the perspective of the privileged and powerful occupier, while 5 Broken Cameras speaks for the powerless and debilitated occupied. While each film exposes Israel’s systematically unethical treatment of Palestinians, if either one is chosen by the Academy as the winner, it will mean very different things.

The Gatekeepers, directed by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, who previously made a movie about Ariel Sharon and his decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005, brings together six former Shin Bet agents to expose the moral and tactical failures in the country’s secret internal security infrastructure. 5 Broken Cameras is a documentary jointly directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi, chronicling the West Bank village Bil’in’s response to Israel’s construction of the separation wall and routine IDF harassment and raids.

To make the $1.5 million-film, Moreh had to gain access to some of Israel’s most elite and authoritative figures on national security. It was filmed in a polished studio, providing the six interviewees with impeccable make-up and lighting and includes highly sophisticated digitally recreated archive footage.

To make the $250,000 5 Broken Cameras, Burnat pretty much just had to get hold of a camera and turn it on. It shows rough and at times jumbled footage shot by Burnat with his five different cameras, all of which are an objective testament to the damage inflicted by IDF methods over the course of years of weekly protests in Bil’in.

While both films reflect a different piece of the harsh reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they exist in entirely separate political discourses. The Gatekeepers takes place within Israel’s national ethos, from a conscious place of privilege and power. Palestinians are not really present in The Gatekeepers, except as the legitimate enemy as well as the victimized “other.”

The six spymasters who divulge for the first time their involvement in operations like targeted assassinations and mass arrests, do so out of a patriotic concern for what Israel has achieved and where it is headed (and probably political motives, as three out of the six are Israeli politicians from centrist parties). They all insist that negotiations with Palestinians are necessary to secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state long term.

In the context of the right-wing shift in Israeli society and its increasingly draconian government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who reportedly refuses to see the film), this may seem like a radical message. However, the argument that occupation corrupts the occupier and that Israeli military control of Palestinians is untenable stems from a veteran left-wing Zionist discourse in Israel.

In this sense, recognition of the film looks like the Academy’s way of commending Israelis who question and challenge immoral actions they have taken in the name of national security. This is not as much a condemnation of the occupation as it is a lamentation of its stain on Israeli democracy. It in effect applauds Israeli guilt over being the occupying force.

5 Broken Cameras is simply a portrayal of life under occupation – a portrait of a disenfranchised agricultural community in the West Bank confronted with construction of a wall on their farmlands, uprooted olive trees, and tear gas and live ammunition at their protests, which have caused the death of several residents and hundreds of injuries.

The fact that Palestinian co-director Emad Burnat was detained in Los Angeles Airport en route to the Oscars on Wednesday is a painfully ironic example of the starkly different realities Israelis and Palestinians live in, at home and abroad.

5 Broken Cameras is a personal Palestinian story, showing the implications of occupation and its human rights violations on the very people suffering it. It gives voice to a narrative often neglected, dismissed or combated — or simply ignored — in Israeli society and media.

So what message would the Academy send by picking one or other of the films? (Several polls and articles indicate that few expect either one to take home the Oscar).

If The Gatekeepers wins, it will be like the Academy giving the film — and by extension, Israeli society — a pat on the back for demonstrating that some of Israel’s most elite security men know how to be retrospectively self-critical. While that may be a nod toward a more honest way of viewing Israel, it’s ultimately a cop-out since it still manages to portray Israel in a redeeming light, and thus stops short of a sea change.

If 5 Broken Cameras wins, it will amount to symbolic recognition by mainstream America of the Palestinian narrative as the occupied – and defy arguments voiced in Israel that it is nothing more than a provocative Palestinian propaganda film. It will go beyond the message expressed in The Gatekeepers that what Israel is doing is wrong and show the world what wrong looks like – and just how ugly it is.

This post was originally published in The Forward.


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    1. Ellen L.

      From a cinematic point of view, there is no comparison between these two films — while The Gatekeepers would have worked just as well as a New Yorker article, 5 Broken Cameras does what only film can do, i.e., take outsiders to a place they could never otherwise see. For its $1.5 million, The Gatekeepers is a very conventional film of talking heads — and, as usual, talking heads from the halls of power. They say interesting, sometimes provocative things, but this is not the stuff of great cinema. 5 Broken Cameras, on the other hand, is not only a statement about the struggles of Palestinian life, but about how technology has empowered ordinary people to share their stories with the world. To my mind, it’s not a close call, but Oscar usually makes the more conventional choice.

      Reply to Comment
      • Excellent analysis.

        Reply to Comment
    2. rsgengland

      Where are the movies like this that should be coming out of the Arab/Muslim/Palestinian world.
      The photographers and directors would suffer at best public humiliation and at worst execution or lynching, if they attempted anything like this against their regimes.
      A West Bank Palestinian has recently been convicted of ‘pulling his tongue at the king (insulting Abbas on youTube).
      Lets all celebrate the free speech and diversity Israel encourages and spawns, in the face of the vitriol and hostility that she is continuously subjected to.

      Reply to Comment
      • Yonatan

        Where are the Palestinian films? Let’s ask Arafat Jaradat. Oh wait. He’s just been tortured to death by the Israelis.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Mikesailor

      For Mouthful of Consonants: Perhaps we should celebrate the Israeli history of oppression and brutality for without those attributes such films would not be made. Nor need to be made.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        My point exactly.
        Israel allows these movies to be made, and their producers to flourish.
        Israel even partially funded both movies.
        In the other countries in the Middle East/North Africa though, where violence well in excess of what occurs in Israel, is allowed to go on unabated by you and your ilk, citizens in those lands would be punished by, as I said before, at best banishment or ostracism, and at worth death.

        Reply to Comment
        • So, because Israel has partially funded 5 Broken Cameras–the cameras never really broke, and all is fine with the (only) world.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Elisabeth

      “Lets all celebrate the free speech and diversity Israel ENCOURAGES and SPAWNS.” By shooting at an unarmed man, who is simply recording what happens to his village, destroying his cameras 5 times, and killing several equally unarmed people present at the events in the process?
      You call this encouraging and spawning free speech? Funny.

      Arab/Muslim/Palestinians are risking their lives in their activism to achieve more political freedom in all countries of the Middle East, doing what they should do, no matter who oppresses them.

      Are you also doing everything you can to stop movements like Im Tirzu destroying free speech in Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Noevil9

      If the truth is being told by Israeli media, and in the world, in allowing the world to see reality as it happens, then neither film would have been needed nor necesary to make. As the truth would have been told. Israeli democracy, is a Democracy of convience. Some might what to jump up and defend Israel, as they always do, as it could never do wrong. I ask them to relaxe for now, and look at things in a more objactive manner, like what this publication does, and the Haaretz try to do. Then that would say a lot about the Israeli balanced Democracy, and some of the blind support of Israel ,right or wrong, just to prove ones loyalty to their Jewishness, and forget their obligation to fairness and justice among humanity. In regard to the films, I support what Ellen L. have said on the top. I only have a doubt of the objectivity of Hollywood, as we know who Hollywood is, and they would never want to appear as they have betrayed Israel . The Jewish guilt is stronger than their sense of objectivity and justice.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Siren

      You’re overthinking this one, Mairav.

      Reply to Comment