After an extraordinary run of Oscar nominations for narrative features in the Best Foreign Language Film category (Beaufort in 2008, Waltz with Bashir in 2009, Ajami in 2010, and Footnote in 2012), this year two of the five Best Documentary slots are filled by films from Israel. The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras couldn't be more different, but taken together they are a tribute to the vitality of Israeli democracy, still vibrant despite all the obstacles.
The Gatekeepers are the six men who have lead Israel's Secret Service (the Shin Bet) in the era of Occupation: Avraham Shalom (1980-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1995), Carmi Gillon (1994-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), and Avi Dichter (2000-2005).
Composite of The Gatekeepers. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Filmmaker Dror Moreh had the audacity to ask them to appear in extended on camera interviews, and to their credit, they all said yes. Aided by Oron Adar, his extraordinary editor, Moreh weaves their stories together into a seamless whole that is both fascinating and heart-breaking. If you are seeking easy answers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will find none here. There is no black and white in The Gatekeepers, just lots of gray in every possible gradation. These are men of action, war heroes and highly decorated veterans, and yet, speaking to Moreh's camera, they are all thoughtful and reflective, as if, independently, they have also been seeking an answer to the exact question he is asking: how did all our lofty dreams of statehood come to this?
The oldest of them, Avraham Shalom, looks like a kindly zayde but he has been in the battle from the beginning. He fought with the Palmach and was a member of the team that brought Adolf Eichmann to justice. But in The Gatekeepers, describing how the field of operations changed after the great "6 Day War" victory of 1967, Shalom takes on the voice of someone telling bedtime stories to children. The rabbits went underground, he says; the dogs run around sniffing the air and tripping over each other trying to find them, but the rabbits have disappeared.
Members of the Shin Bet study Arabic; they learn to "read between the lines;" they visit towns and villages and try to build bridges. After decades of strife, a moment of hope… and then catastrophe. "He changed history," says Carmi Gillon, with a despair that knows no bottom. Who is Gillon talking about? By this point we have seen dozens of famous and infamous people on screen, but it turns out that Gillon is referring to someone whose face is almost never seen and whose name is barely known here in America.
For Gillon, the man who "changed history" was Yigal Amir, the twenty-five year old student from Bar-Ilan University who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. And now, almost two decades later, Moreh's clear implication is that Israel has yet to recover from this grievous injury to the body politic. It is not what they (the Palestinians and the Arabs) have done to us (to Israel and to the Jewish people) that causes Moreh the most pain; it is what we have done to ourselves.
The Gatekeepers is dry, analytical, and scrupulously balanced (some might even say "balanced" to a fault); 5 Broken Cameras, on the other hand, shamelessly bypasses the brain and takes aim directly at the heart.
Gibreel at 5. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.
5 Broken Cameras presents itself as the straightforward story of an ordinary Palestinian man named Emad Burnat, who provides continuous first-person narration. Burnat and his wife Soraya have four sons: Mohammad (born in 1995), Yasin (born in 1998), Taki-Ydin (born in 2000), and Gibreel (born in 2005). "Each boy is a phase of our lives. Each boy experiences a different childhood."
The film is structured around birthday parties for Gibreel, from age one to age five. Burnat tells us that it is Gibreel's birth (in February '05) which prompts him to acquire the first of his many cameras, and every year, Burnat dutifully records Gibreel blowing out a new set of candles. But in counterpoint to that happy moment, Burnat also records life in the village of Bil'in: bulldozers arrive to clear the surrounding hills; construction workers build new apartment towers for the expanding population of Modi'in Illit; Israeli soldiers multiply to enforce the separation barrier in between. ("The first day the bulldozers come is very hard for me…")
Every Friday afternoon after prayers the men of Bil'in march, protesting their ever-deteriorating circumstances. And Israeli peace activists march with them, and soon supporters also flock to Bil'in from all around the world. ("They bring creative ideas to our protest.") Burnat's first camera, the one he said he got for personal use, is destroyed by an exploding tear gas canister. ("In order to keep filming, my friend Yisrael gives me a camera.")
"Now that Gibreel is old enough to understand, he comes to see the demonstration," says Burnat in his relentless narration. "Old enough to understand what?" I ask myself, and I realize I am already beginning to grow skeptical. Back home again, Burnat films Soraya washing Gibreel in the tub. "I wasn't afraid," says the toddler. "If there is gas, just smell the onion," responds the mother with pride. "You are a hero." Commenting on this intimate scene, Burnat worries about burns. "I hope he will develop a thick skin fast," says Burnat in his voiceover.
The skeptical voice in my head is now very loud: "What father takes a toddler to a potentially violent protest march?" Inevitably someone eventually dies in a melee, and Gibreel is there watching. "Daddy," he says once they are back home, "why don't you kill the soldiers with a knife?" "We all lose our childhood at some point," intones Burnat in his somber voiceover.
After 90 minutes, the credits finally roll and I'm aghast. We can debate the wisdom of the settlements (as "the Gatekeepers" clearly do) and we can certainly have empathy for ordinary Palestinians who just want to live their lives in peace. But what I just saw was a film about parents deliberately transforming their newborn son into a vengeful Jihadist. Can this propaganda really be a candidate for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category?
Worse yet, it takes mere minutes to learn that the whole thing is a fake. "I have no job or fixed income. Like the rest of the villagers, I live off the land," says Burnat in his voiceover. Yes there are one or two shots of his elderly father sprinkling some seeds around by hand, but we never see Burnat do any actual farming. One fall day, Burnat takes Soraya and the boys out to "harvest olives," but it looks like an excursion. Is this what pays for their home, where Soraya cooks meals for her family in a kitchen that looks much like my own?
I read interviews with Burnat in which I learn that his footage has been shown on television, on Al Jazeera and elsewhere. In the online press kit, Burnat is described as a "Palestinian farmer," but the bio goes on to include "freelance cameraman and photographer." Cameras 2 through 6 were all provided by Israeli peace activists, and the film's voiceover narration was written for Burnat by his Israeli co-director Guy Davidi (someone who never actually appears in the film itself).
Furthermore, a little more Googling reveals that the weekly Bil'in protests began in January 2005 (in other words, before Gibreel was born). According to Cambridge University historian Neil Rogachevsky, Bil'in is best described as a suburb of Ramallah, and many of the people in the village actually work for the Palestinian Authority. In an article published in 2010, Rogachevsky goes on to say: "Ramallah pays to keep the Bil'in protest movement alive." No one watching 5 Broken Cameras would ever guess there was any connection.
I visit IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) and watch a documentary short by Guy Davidi called Women Defying Barriers in which four women meet after the invasion of Gaza. The two Jewish women express their personal guilt over the suffering of Palestinian children in Gaza while the two Palestinian women sneer. In Davidi's world, the Palestinian women have no guilt because they have nothing to feel guilty about. Apparently no one has told him that missiles from Gaza rain down on Israeli children too.
I've seen all of this year's Oscar-nominated docs (in addition to The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras, the list includes How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, and Searching for Sugar Man), and I sincerely believe The Gatekeepers is the most serious, timely, and thought-provoking of these five films. But were I forced to bet, I would place my money on 5 Broken Cameras. If that happens, if the doc that takes home this year's Oscar is 5 Broken Cameras, it will be a very sad night for me.
The Gatekeepers opens locally on February 22 at the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park, the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park, and the CineArts in Evanston. Click here for the complete release schedule. 5 Broken Cameras is already available on DVD from Netflix and can be streamed on Amazon.