Israel’s two nominees for Best Documentary shared the same Oscar fate on Sunday night, elbowed aside in favor of “Searching for Sugar Man.”
“The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras” have shared the same critical fate too, at least among some on the right, who have branded them both anti-Israeli and lamented funding and any other state assistance provided to the filmmakers.
But these two ostensibly similar films — both grappling at heart with aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; both questioning Israel’s approach to handling and solving that conflict — couldn’t be more different.
One of them is cheap, predictable, utterly lacking in self-criticism, honesty, or self-awareness — a relentless battering of Israel that reeks of familiar Palestinian victimhood. The other is a credit to everything that is best about the Jewish state — a testament to Israeli decency and introspection in the face of a sometimes heartless enemy.
One of them underlines why no accommodation with the Palestinians is remotely likely in the foreseeable future. The other shows why Israel must do everything in its power to work toward such an accommodation.
Emad Burnat’s “5 Broken Cameras,” hailed by one critic as “an unflinching review of the Palestinian experience,” might be more accurately described as an unflinching portrait of Israel’s apparently pointlessly vindictive and unjustifiable attempts to erect part of its West Bank security barrier. As Burnat force-feeds us his account of callous, sometimes fatal, Israeli actions, carried out by brutal Israeli soldiers, dispatched by heartless Israeli political paymasters, he denies himself and his audience the smallest hint of dissent.
A camera breaks, is smashed, dropped, or fired at, so Burnat picks up a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, resolutely filming the awful, endless, unequal encounters between Palestinians from his village of Bil’in and their Israeli enemies. At no point does he so much as pause to wonder whether a modicum of explanation might be necessary, appropriate or fair to his audience. In a documentary that revolves around the building of a barrier, was it too much to expect that he might mention, even if only to dismiss it with counterarguments about Israeli intransigence and Palestinian rights, the Israeli reasoning behind the construction — namely, to thwart the Palestinian suicide bombers who previously crossed unobstructed from the West Bank to maintain a strategic onslaught on Israeli civilians?
The security barrier is a big, horrible blot on the landscape, built at tremendous humanitarian cost for the Palestinians. But the greatest human right is the right to life, and that’s what it was built — is still being built — to preserve. Burnat won’t let his audience hear that.
Argue bitterly about the Israeli army’s response to villagers’ protests. Argue bitterly about the route, which has seen the barrier veer far from the pre-1967 lines into West Bank territory. But give your viewers some tools to begin to understand why what you are filming might have been set in motion.
Perhaps concerned that any such light would fatally weaken his dark construct, Burnat brooks no departure from his narrative. And his product, therefore, is no artistic achievement, no credible contender for any award; it is, rather, one-sided news reporting extended to feature-length.
The blinkering filmmaker unsurprisingly spent the pre-Oscar days bemoaning the academy formalities that saw his documentary categorized as an Israeli production. I share his horror at the designation, for opposite reasons.
What a contrast his production makes with “The Gatekeepers,” whose entire narrative is one of anguish and nuance, of conflicting imperatives and complex, unsatisfactory rationalizations. Several of its protagonists — former Shin Bet security chiefs, whose life’s work is to protect Israelis — leap off the screen as remarkable figures not merely because they so uncharacteristically open up to director Dror Moreh, but because their candor reveals such insistent self-examination, and so startling a degree of empathy with the Palestinians. Even those Palestinians who are hell-bent on killing Israelis.
That these key figures charged with keeping Israelis alive have the intellectual honesty and emotional will to look deep into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to internalize how damaging Israel’s presence in Palestinian areas is proving for Israelis, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of at least part of the Palestinian narrative, says a great deal that is commendable about their upbringing, their environment, and ultimately their country. You may think them wrong-headed, soft, broken. You may consider them heroic. But you cannot easily dismiss them as naive, and you can only marvel at the skills of a filmmaker who pried these confessions from those usually tight lips.
The Israeli equivalent of “5 Broken Cameras” would have been a relentless documentation of bus bombing after restaurant bombing after shopping mall bombing, except the filmmaker in those confrontations could not have switched cameras. He, not his camera, would be broken in reel one. He’d be part of the murdered ensemble, one of the deceased documenters of a cynical inhumanity in a film that could be titled “5 Dead Cameramen.”
Instead we got “Shomrei HaSaf” — officially “The Gatekeepers” but also translatable as “The Guardians” — filmed evidence of Israel’s excruciating dilemmas, and of the role our security chiefs see for themselves as striving to protect us not only physically, but also ethically.
They were nominated together, and passed over together at the Academy Awards, but these two films about our conflict have nothing in common. And that’s an Israeli and a Palestinian tragedy.