Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Plays Out in Oscar Docs

PHOTO: Emad Burnat began filming the constructions of fences and Israeli settlements when his son Gibreel was born in 1995.
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The news came, not surprisingly, as a text message: "We got it."

When Guy Davidi, a filmmaker based in Tel Aviv, received word from New York on his mobile phone that "5 Broken Cameras" had been nominated for an Academy Award, he immediately called his co-director, Emad Burnat, in his Palestinian village on the West Bank.

"Great" was Burnat's response. But then he added he couldn't talk, recalled Davidi. "'My car is stuck in the mud and there's been rain all day, and my family's here, and we're stuck in the mud.'"

"5 Broken Cameras" details the struggles of Burnat, a Palestinian father of four, and his neighbors in the village of Bil'in who, when they aren't farming the land, are practicing nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. The action starts in 2005, when Burnat's fourth son, Gibreel, is born. Gibreel's birth coincides with the arrival of bulldozers; the Israeli army is continuing to build the wall, now going up in Bil'in, which separates Israel and some of its settlements from the Palestinians, protecting a growing Israeli settlement while dividing the village's land.

Burnat, 41, films the bulldozers, then the wall, the settlers moving in, the Israeli soldiers, a friend being killed by those soldiers, olive trees set afire at night in retaliation for the protests. He begins as an olive farmer who loves cameras, and filming allows him to both participate in and document the demonstrations. "I feel that the camera can protect me and my friends in the protest, to make documentation and use the footage for the Internet," he told ABC News. "But sometimes the camera may be the reason they try to kill you." Five of Burnat's cameras have been destroyed, by rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, jostling that turns violent.

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Davidi and Burnat's film is not the only documentary from Israel nominated this year; it shares the stage with "The Gatekeepers," a more formal, stylized documentary that features six of the last seven heads of Israel's Shin Bet – a cross between the CIA and the FBI – recalling their successes and failures overseeing security in the occupied areas and in Israel proper, targeting terrorists and potential terrorists, ordering assassinations.

Both films present a state and its people effectively stuck in the mud, much like Burnat, lacking meaningful communication, understanding, political will to move toward peace. One film is told from the Palestinian side, the other from the Israeli. But each reaches the same conclusion: The occupation must end. It is not only destroying the lives of the people living in the occupied areas, says "Cameras," but, adds "Gatekeepers," it is destroying the moral compass of the state of Israel, and perhaps, ultimately, the state itself.

"These guys come out of a culture in which they are trained to lie and omit, yet what they are saying is devastating," said Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and screenwriter living in Jerusalem who has seen both films, speaking about "Gatekeepers." "'5 Cameras' is an eye-opener: So this is what it's like to be a Palestinian who's attempting to be nonviolent. The soldiers are doing their job, what they're ordered to do. It's extremely unpleasant and tragic for all concerned. The overall import of [the film] is, you are there.

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"Gatekeepers," added Schoffman, "is ultimately about policy. Here you have these guys who, one after another, come to the same conclusions: Violence is not the answer. And even though they take pride in, 'Boy, that was a clean one, that one worked really well; from a tactical point of view, that was a success,' at the end of the day it doesn't get you anywhere. The one quote, the takeaway, is [former Shin Bet chief] Yaakov Peri, who says, 'When you finish a job like this, you're a kind of a leftist.'"

Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist who writes on intelligence and military affairs, said the most "amazing interview" was with Avraham Shalom, who said, "'The Israeli occupation can be compared to the Nazi occupation of Europe.'" (The comment referred to not the genocide of Jews in Europe, but to the treatment of occupied populations, Shalom hastened to add in the film.) "If anybody else except a former head of Shin Bet had said that," Bergman, added, "he would be completely outcast."

Dror Moreh, the director of "Gatekeepers," admits he was "blown away a lot of times during those interviews." Juxtaposed with comments such as "very clean and elegant" to describe a particular hit are persuasive arguments for dialogue with the Palestinians and neighboring states, including Iran, as well as chilling conversations about the morality of occupation.

The seed of the film was planted several years ago while Moreh, 51, was working on a documentary about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he was told had been influenced by Shin Bet leaders to evacuate settlements in Gaza. Another influence was Errol Morris' Academy Award-winning documentary "The Fog of War," with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara addressing the lessons of the Vietnam War.

Asked how he persuaded the Shin Bet leaders to talk so candidly on camera, Moreh told ABC News, "You don't get the heads of Shin Bet to speak if they do not want to speak. It was the right timing; they're very concerned about where Israel is heading.

"Israel has managed to win every battle, but she is losing the war," continued Moreh, blending his own opinions with those of the men he profiles. "You cannot in the 21st century maintain an occupied policy against people who don't want to be occupied."

The growing racism among Israelis engendered by the occupation, the habit of seeing the Palestinians as "the other," the lack of compassion, Israel's "moving slowly but surely toward the extreme right" – all that, said Moreh, is turning Israel into "an apartheid state."

Much of the blame, the intelligence chiefs strongly suggest in the film, can be laid at the feet of Israel's political leaders, with the exception of Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination in 1995 at the hands of a right-wing settler was a major blow and embarrassment to the intelligence service and effectively brought the peace process to an end.

If Moreh came to "Gatekeepers" while filming another documentary, Davidi, 34, who grew up in Israel but spent time in Paris, readily admits that he first showed up on the West Bank for "selfish" reasons. "I was recently back from Paris, where I could sit in a café with an Arab [friend] and discuss life," he told an audience last week at the Core Club, a private club in Manhattan when he and Burnat came to New York to drum up Oscar support for the film. Coming home to Israel, he said, was like "a ghetto," with Israeli Jews together, Palestinians separate. "So the best way to start was to go to the West Bank. There I received a lot of hospitality from people who have nothing."

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And like other outsiders – from Israel, Europe, the U.S. – Davidi began protesting with the residents of Bil'in. One thing led to another and within a few years he was structuring and writing the narrative for Burnat's story, combing through hundreds of hours of footage, persuading Burnat to show more of his personal, family life, as it is so intertwined with the life of the village.

Yet despite the fact that Davidi is Israeli, that "Cameras" was made with partial funding from Israel and that it won best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, both Davidi and Burnat are adamant that "Cameras" not be seen as an Israeli-Palestinian collaboration.

"I proposed Guy as a friend, as an activist," said Burnat. "This is my story, Guy came to help. The goal was to make a Palestinian project."

Davidi echoes the sentiment. Were the film to be hailed as an Israeli-Palestinian collaboration, "the discussion could end there. Isn't this nice that an Israeli and a Palestinian are working together," said Davidi. "No. The point of the film is to end the occupation."

This past week in Los Angeles, all three directors have been in town for the Oscars. Although the films are harshly critical of current Israeli politics, the Israeli consulate did co-host a reception for the makers of "The Gatekeepers," according to The Forward, as part of a celebration of 10 years of Israeli-French co-productions. Speaking about both films, David Siegel, the consul general in L.A., said, "We can be proud of the open democratic political discourse we have in Israel," according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. And since the "5 Broken Camera" filmmakers have said they don't want their film's success to be embraced by Israel, Siegel said that the government did not need to accept the film as representing Israel, reported The Forward.

Burnat and his wife and Gibreel almost didn't make it to the Oscars. Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, they were detained by security for more than an hour, and Burnat was interrogated about his intentions in coming to the U.S. before being released. In a statement sent to ABC News, he called the incident "unpleasant" but "a daily occurrence for Palestinians, every single day, throughout the West Bank."

Make sure to tune in to Backstage Pass on Oscar Sunday to see your favorite celebrities walk the red carpet and follow the winners backstage. Click here to learn how!

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