The 85th annual Academy Award celebration boasted some of Hollywood’s premier talent. While most viewers were closely attuned to the celebrity sightings, spectacular gowns, provocative host, show-stopping performances, and the major awards themselves, some of us with strong Jewish and Israel-oriented inclinations were especially anticipating the Motion Picture Academy’s decision on Best Documentary. While Israeli films have been nominated for Best Foreign Language film for several consecutive years (and none have won), this year, two Israeli films, both critical of the Jewish State, have been nominated for Best Documentary.
“The Gatekeepers,” directed by Jewish Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, follows all the surviving former chiefs of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service operators, who provide a tell-all confession of some of the most notorious missions in the West Bank and Gaza and who offer perspective on how Israel would be best served in the future by reaching out to those who have been its enemies. The film combines in-depth interviews with archival footage and computer animation as it recounts the role these individuals played in the preservation of Israel’s security from the 1967 Six Day War to the present. The New York Times called the film the best documentary of 2012, deeming it an “essential, eye-opening viewing if you think you understand the Middle East,” while The Wall Street Journal reflects, “What these tough and tough-minded men have to say about Israeli politicians and about the nation’s current stance vis-à-vis its enemies, is stunning and edifying in equal measure.” To my own way of thinking, the movie’s message has great credibility, especially since all six Shin Bet leaders, whose views might ordinarily have been hardline, feel Israel would be best served by taking a conciliatory approach. However, it might have widened the lens somewhat were the film to include a response from Israel’s current leadership.
The second Israeli Academy-Award-nominated documentary (actually an Israeli-Palestinian-French co-production submitted by the State of Israel), “5 Broken Cameras,” was co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. It chronicles the peaceful resistance of residents in Bil’in, an Arab Village in the West Bank, under the perceived threat of Israeli territorial expansion and potential land confiscation. The movie highlights the less than peaceful response of the Israeli military. Time Out New York critics responded favorably, describing the film as a “proudly defiant work, devoted to a community and created by its members that shows the largely unreported details of normal life in the West Bank.” However, it needs to be pointed out that this moving and well-intended film is imbalanced in so far as it presents only one side of a complicated story. For instance, when Gibreel, wide-eyed son of co-director and cameraman Emad Burnet, expresses to his father a desire to stab an IDF soldier in retaliation for the death of his dear friend, it is omitted that the soldier was allegedly trying to defend himself from a vicious attack by Gibreel’s friend.
The two films are stylistically quite different. “The Gatekeepers” is comprised of superb probing interviews and engaging digital effects. “5 Broken Cameras” incorporates gritty footage of clashes between Israeli and the Palestinian villagers recorded on the filmmaker’s broken and confiscated cameras. However, what is common to both films is their devastating critiques of how Israel has comported itself in the past as well as the present.
As it happens, neither of these well-reviewed and highly-regarded films won. The Best Documentary turned out to be Malik Bendjelloul’s, “Searching for Sugar Man,” an American film about an obscure singer in Detroit.
Parenthetically, a nominee for overall Best Picture, to which people’s attention was more devoted than to any documentary, was Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” (whose star, Daniel Day Lewis, actually won Best Actor). “Lincoln” records the heroic acts of the sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, in abolishing slavery and ending the Civil War. Although the sobering Israeli documentaries (especially “5 Broken Cameras”) are, in my opinion, insufficiently nuanced, and the on-ground realities in Israel and the West Bank are even more complex than what is portrayed, my hope is that the current and any future Prime Minster of our beloved State of Israel demonstrate Lincoln-esque courage, fortitude, and creativity in combating injustice in all forms and in navigating the challenging, raging waters of the Israeli-Arab conflict.