Israeli (or Palestinian?) Oscar nominees — what really happened?

This is a guest post by Alexander Bodin Saphir, a filmmaker, playwright and current ‘author in residence’ at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.

At last month’s Oscar ceremony both Israeli documentary nominated films — The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras — which are critical of current Israeli government policy, lost out to Searching for Sugarman. The fact that they lost is not particularly noteworthy (winning an Oscar is even more of a crap-shoot than getting onto the short list).

But what was noteworthy was the response of Limor Livnat, the then Minster for Sports and Culture who was more than happy that neither Israeli nominated film won the coveted Oscar. Admitting to Haaretz ‘that she did not even watch the Oscars award ceremony on Sunday and felt no anxiety about the announcement of the winner in the Best Documentary category. “I was anxious mainly because I wanted Lincoln to win best director,” Livnat said with a grin’.

When four Israeli organisations representing producers, directors, screenwriters and documentarians sent Livnat an open letter of protest she responded with incredulity, “I was shocked by your shock … I, who am opposed to censorship, call on all of you to [conduct] self-censorship. After all, Israel is a democracy to be proud of, but a democracy that is on the defensive, because lined up against 5 Broken Cameras are thousands of families that have been destroyed by Palestinian terror. You do nothing about that − you don’t make movies, you are living in a movie…” (Livnat’s favourite book, according to her Facebook page is George Orwell’s 1984. You can’t make this stuff up!)

And all of this is happening while the Israel Film Council instigate new funding parameters, which the Likud minister hopes will stop the production of Israeli films that “slander the state of Israel before the whole world.”

Forget for a second that Winston Churchill was adamant that “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” What is all the hubbub about?

Two sides of the same story?

It’s fascinating that these two films should be released and nominated the same year as although they are two very different kinds of films, they are dealing with similar issues, albeit from contrasting perspectives. 

The Gatekeepers by Dror Moreh

The Gatekeepers is essentially a film centred around six talking heads, former heads of the Israeli security agency known as the Shin Bet or “Shabak.” Director Dror Moreh has done a fantastic job of transporting us outside the interview room and making it come alive with CGI graphics of the Kav 300 bus hijacking, the attempted plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock and a constant sense of surveillance with his multiple screens of satellite imagery.

Moreh clearly had a vision for his film. He started out as a cinematographer in documentary and fiction and it shows – this film is visually brilliantly engaging for a film essentially about six talking heads. But in many respects Moreh’s art and craft has taken a back seat in the Israeli discussion of his film. What is most prominent is the fact that these six men, held in the highest of esteem, are given a platform to speak out and it has become something of a watershed political moment for the Israeli public. Below are some of their quotes from the film addressing the conflict, their bosses on the political scene, and the Palestinians themselves:

Ami Ayalon (Shin Bet 1996-2000) offered some of the most scathing comments against Israel’s political leaders, who each of his colleagues agree offer no direction for the only real solution, political negotiations with the Palestinians. He says, “I had a wonderful childhood. I knew that there’s a house in Jerusalem and on the second floor there’s a long corridor. At the end of the corridor there’s a door and behind that door is a wise man who makes decisions. He thinks. My parents called him the ‘Old Man’ [Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel]. Years later, after the Yom Kippur War, I went to Jerusalem, I went to that same building, I went to the second floor and found no door at the end of the corridor, and behind the missing door, no one was thinking for me. We face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.”

Avi Dichter (Shin Bet 2000-2005) says “Peace must be built on a system of trust … as somebody who knows the Palestinians well, I claim that there should be no problem building a system of trust with them, a genuine one.”

Carmi Gillon (Shin Bet 1994-1996 under Yitzkah Rabin) speaks movingly about his personal crisis after failing to prevent the assassination of the Prime Minister. He says to the camera, “For Israel it’s too much of a luxury not to speak to our enemies. As long as they decide not to speak to us, I have no choice, but when we decide not to speak I think we’re making a mistake…We are making the lives of millions unbearable into prolonged human suffering.”

Avraham Shalom (Shin Bet 1980-1986 under Menachem Begin) comments for the first time publicly about the bus hijacking in 1984 in which two hijacking suspects who were photographed alive after the storming of the bus later died in police custody. This incident threatened to take down the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Shalom himself had to resign a year after the affair.

Moreh asks Shalom from behind the camera whether he supports talking to Hamas or Iran, Shalom answered bluntly, “Anybody, even if they answer rudely. I’m for continuing, there is no alternative…The future is bleak. It’s dark, the future.”

In a film of dark assessments, Shalom offers perhaps the most cutting. After insisting that there are no moral limits to war he then adds, “It’s a very negative trait that we’ve acquired to be…I’m afraid to say it, so I won’t. We’ve become…cruel. To ourselves too, but mainly to the occupied population using the excuse of the war against terror.”

Yakov Peri (Shin Bet 1988-1994), now an MK in the centrist Yesh Atid party, said simply about his service, “These moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire you end up becoming a bit of a leftist.”

Moreh has been quoted as saying that “if this film doesn’t lead to change in Israel, then nothing will”. And the NY Times ends it’s review with: “If you need reassurance or grounds for optimism about the Middle East, you will not find it here. What you will find is rare, welcome and almost unbearable clarity.”

5 Broken Cameras, directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
5 Broken Cameras is a personal story with a single point of view. It’s essentially 6 years of home movies knitted together to tell a very powerful, personal story. And it works. The story follows Emad Burnat, a poor villager in the West Bank, starting in 2005 when he buys a camera to capture the birth of his youngest son, Gibreel. Coincidentally this is the beginning of the non-violent protests against the wall in Burnat’s home village of Bil’in. He documents both his new son’s growth into a small boy and the protests against the wall side by side. This is a moving and deeply personal story about a father and a son set in an incredibly difficult part of the world.

When Burnat was asked in a recent interview if he was hopeful about the peace process, he responded, “Of course, we have hope always. We have hope and we have dreams. That is why we are doing what we’re doing now [with the movie].”

5 Broken Cameras makes no attempt to be even handed in its portrayal of the conflict. It is unashamedly telling a Palestinian narrative. So much so, that since being Oscar nominated Guy Davidi has been threatened with prosecution for incitement by a number of Israeli soldiers featured in the film who claim that he uses their image without their consent and takes footage out of context.

In an added twist when Emad Burnat and his family arrived in Los Angles for the Oscar Awards ceremony they were detained at customs in LAX for around an hour (reports vary on the length of his detention). Apparently the customs officials couldn’t believe that a Palestinian filmmaker had been nominated for an Oscar and Michael Moore, the famed American documentarist, had to be called in to verify Burnat’s story. This episode has since been called into question with some people accusing Burnat and Moore of creating a ‘publicity stunt’ to shore up interest in the film ahead of the Oscar nominations. What is not disputed however is the fact that Burnat was detained and questioned at LAX with Burnat telling Moore afterwards that “It’s nothing I’m not already used to” and “When you live under occupation, with no rights, this is a daily occurrence.”

Are both films really “Israeli”?

Firstly its amazing that not one but two films from Israel were on the Oscar short list last month. In the fiction category of Best Foreign Language Film, each country is invited to nominate just one film. But documentaries don’t work that way. They need only a week’s run in both NY and LA and, once eligible, the Academy votes on nominations in a form of proportional representation similar to the Israeli election. This system ensures that there is diversity amongst the nominees, which might account for the spectrum of films nominated.

And this is where national labels really get messy, as there has been plenty of controversy over what constitutes an “Israeli” film. But of course this isn’t the first time that there has been confusion and controversy over the nationality of a film from Israel-Palestine. In 2006 Paradise Now was nominated as best foreign film as a Palestinian film, only to later be referred to as a film from the Palestinian Authority and eventually as coming from the Palestinian Territories. Paradise Now was directed by Hany Abu-Assad a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Nazareth and co-produced by the Israeli producer Amir Harel and was made with Israeli and European funding.

Then in 2009, there was Israel’s 2009 best foreign language Oscar nominee Ajami, co-directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. When Scandar was asked on the eve of the Oscars how he felt representing Israel at the Oscars he replied that as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, he does not represent Israel, “because Israel does not represent me”.

Ten days later, MKs Michael Ben-Ari, Uri Ariel, Yaakov Katz of the right-wing National Union party and Moshe Matalon of Yisrael Beiteinu petitioned the Knesset to amend the Cinema Act of 1999 with the “Declaration of Loyalty” amendment. Which stated that “No film shall be granted a state grant unless the film editors, producers, directors, and actors who partake in it first sign a pledge of allegiance to the State of Israel, its symbols, and its Jewish and democratic values.” The amendment was not passed, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come back again in another form as an aid to ‘self-censorship.’

When asked about the national controversy surrounding the film Guy Davidi has said “the film is considered a Palestinian-Israeli-French production since there is finance from these countries and I’m Israeli, Emad is Palestinian … [but] … it’s first and foremost also a Palestinian film. Not that a film should have a citizenship at all.”

Is the Academy taking a more liberal line on Israel?

True, these nominations don’t occur in a vacuum. The Academy in the US is made up of successful filmmakers and, as anybody who has seen the stage musical Spamalot will tell you, the only way to make it in show business is to hire a Jew. So although the Academy doesn’t release official statistics it’s safe to assume that it is probably quite heavily populated by Jews . It is certainly historically conservative when it comes to voting for films.

So does this stamp of approval for two films that are heavily critical of current and past Israeli governments signify a shift in general American Jewish engagement with Israel? Has the Academy noted the attempt by the Knesset to limit freedom of speech and in an attempt to uphold their sacred 2nd amendment rights nominated two Israeli docs that are critical of Israeli governmental policy?

The topics certainly herald a shift in the Jewish stories nominated for Oscar consideration in the past. Since 1982 there have been five Holocaust-themed documentary Oscar winners:

  • Into the Arms of Strangers (2000)
  • The Last Days (1998)
  • The Long Way Home (1997)
  • Anne Frank Remembered (1995)
  • Genocide (1982)

And these don’t even include 1999′s winner One Day in September about Munich in 1972 or 2001’s nominee Promises by American-Israeli filmmakers BZ Goldberg and Justine Shapiro about children on opposite sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Israel itself has had 10 films nominated in the best foreign language film category since 1964, including four in the last seven years: Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort in 2007, Ari Folman’s Watlz with Bashir in 2008, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami in 2009 and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote in 2011.

So is it possible that the nomination of The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras represents a permanent shift in the Academy’s engagement with Israeli and Jewish cinema? Only time will tell, but if the recent trends of the American Jewish diaspora’s engagement with Israel is anything to go by its very possible that we’ll see more films nominated that are critical of current Israeli government policy. That is of course if such films are able to be made in a future ‘self-censored’ Israel and as long as there is a need to be critical of Israeli government policy.

One Response to “Israeli (or Palestinian?) Oscar nominees — what really happened?”

  1. The Academy has been consistently liberal in its selection of films, particularly when it comes to Israel. As an example, all the movies you cite as foreign language contenders have been from the Israeli left-wing perspective, and highly critical of Israeli policy. Ajami is probably the least left among them. I enjoyed most of these films, and I appreciate hearing a leftist critique of Israeli policy, but this is not the sole interesting narrative out there.

    Are centrist or right wing Israeli perspective films not being made? I frankly have no idea, because even if those movies were being made, the promotional ecosystem is so heavily skewed towards the left – every movie critic, every movie studio, every film festival, the very mechanisms of foreign/Euro funding for left-narrative films – that we are unlikely to be exposed to them through anything other than word of mouth.

    And that is also a kind of censorship, perhaps even a more pervasive and insidious sort, because the decisions of what films graduate to influence the national and international psyche are not being made by elected officials, but by unelected and unaccountable studio executives and foreign funding agents.


    Victor · March 20th, 2013 at 7:03 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik