A remarkable first for the Israeli film industry: Two local films were named Thursday among the five documentaries nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.
The two are “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers.”
The other nominees selected for the best documentary category were American films “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Invisible War” and South Africa’s “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Emat Burnat and Guy Davidi, the Palestinian and Israeli directors of “5 Broken Cameras,” were nominated for their film about the tensions over the security barrier between an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian village. These are the first Academy Award nominations for Burnat and Davidi.
“The Gatekeepers” was just named best nonfiction film by the National Society of Film Critics award.
The 85th Academy Awards ceremony will be held on February 24.
“The Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh said after learning of the nominations that the fact that two Israeli films were nominated for the best documentary award was “incredible,” and indicated how central the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the world.
The two films examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from contrasting viewpoints, one through the eyes of the “occupier” and the other through those of the “occupied.” Neither does the Israeli government any favors — though it helped foot the bill.
“The Gatekeepers” features candid interviews with retired Israeli spymasters, while “5 Broken Cameras” tells the personal story of an amateur Palestinian cameraman who documents clashes between his fellow villagers and Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Both films were listed by The New York Times as “Critics’ Picks,” and “The Gatekeepers” won praise from the paper’s chief critic as one of the best documentaries of 2012.
Israeli films were finalists for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film four times between 2008 and 2012, giving Israel more nominations during that period than any other country. Three of the films dealt with the Israeli-Arab issue.
While each country can only nominate one film for best foreign film each year, that’s not true of documentaries. This the first time since 1974 that an Israeli film was nominated for best documentary. In that year the Israeli nominee was Chaim Guri’s film, “The 81st Blow.”
In Israel’s informal society, filmmakers and journalists have easy access to senior officials. That helped Moreh secure exclusive interviews with some of Israel’s most shadowy figures: six retired directors of Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet.
The position is so secretive that, until recently, the director of the Shin Bet was long known to the public only by his first initial, and his identity was disclosed only upon retirement.
In Moreh’s film, they sit before the camera dressed informally in polo shirts or suspenders, speaking frankly about their memories of tracking Palestinian militants and radical Israeli settlers.
Their accounts are woven together with animated graphics that bring to life archival photos and news clippings, to reveal the behind-the-scenes calculations during targeted killings and interrogations.
In more private moments, the spymasters speak about the morality of their actions.
“For them (the enemy), by the way, I was also a terrorist,” said Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet chief from 2005 to 2011. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Together, the security chiefs’ testimonies offer biting criticism about Israel’s failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying military might alone cannot bring peace.
“These moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist,” said Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet head from 1988 to 1994.
“We’re winning all the battles,” said Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, “And we’re losing the war.”
Moreh said he wanted his film to change the understanding of the Mideast conflict by featuring the people whose job it was to manage it.
“They are responsible for targeted assassinations, for torture, for getting information,” Moreh said in an interview. The criticism they voice “didn’t come from the leftists, it came from the heart of the defense establishment. If they say such things, then, OK, there must be something to it.”
The other Israeli Oscar nominee, “5 Broken Cameras,” features footage shot by Palestinian farmer and amateur filmmaker Burnat, who bought a camera to film home videos but ended up documenting six years of family life against the backdrop of weekly Palestinian demonstrations against the construction of Israel’s West Bank defense barrier through his village of Bilin.
Those demonstrations started the same week his son was born. His film shows his son’s birthday parties along with the young boy’s developing awareness of the political realities he was born into.
Both films were produced with help from international funds, but also with significant support from the Israeli government.
The Israeli connection caused difficulties for Burnat’s movie. Film festivals in Dubai, Qatar and Egypt refused to screen his film, Burnat said.
Meir Bardugo, a spokesman for Culture Minister Limor Livnat, said the minister believes that “Israeli cinema doesn’t have to be anti-Israeli,” but denied that she intervenes in the content of Israeli films. “If Livnat would interfere, these two films wouldn’t get to the Oscars,” Bardugo said.
Moreh, director of “The Gatekeepers,” told the Israeli website Mako that the nomination was a very emotional moment for him. He never dreamed that the journey that began four years ago would culminate in an Oscar nomination, he said, noting that it would help to deepen the exposure of Israeli film in international cinema. But, he added, the most meaningful aspect of the film for him was exposing it to Israeli citizens.
“Five Broken Cameras” director Davidi was thrilled by the nomination, he told Mako, for him, for his partner Emad, for all the residents of Bili’in, and for anyone engaged in the battle against the wall.
“I’m not surprised,” he said, “but when I edited all the materials and wrote the texts, I knew it would be meaningful. This move will bring us Israeli Palestinian pride in Hollywood.”