This is a big year for Israel at the Oscars. After a half-century of snubs and near-misses, Israel’s film industry stands its best chance ever of taking home the statuette. Of the five best documentary nominees, two are Israeli.
Unfortunately, many Israelis aren’t celebrating. Both nominees are about Israeli-Palestinian relations, and both make Israel look very bad. An Oscar for either one would be a tribute to Israeli art, but a black eye for Israel.
I know what you’re thinking: Those Hollywood liberals wouldn’t nominate an Israeli film unless it bashed Israel. Well, surprise: Of the 10 Israeli films previously nominated, not one focused on Israel’s flaws. The earliest were typical fare: war, crime and romance. The most recent explored the fog of war through a soldier’s eyes, depicted clan feuds in Jaffa’s Arab slums and told of rival Talmud professors. It’s only this year that Oscar examines Israel’s warts. Why? Because that’s what’s on Israelis’ minds.
One current nominee, “5 Broken Cameras,” shows Palestinians in the West Bank village of Bil’in protesting the Israeli security barrier bisecting their fields. It’s told via one villager’s home videos, edited by an Israeli filmmaker. It stars the cameraman’s toddler son, growing up amid tear gas and rubber bullets while the village’s farmland recedes before Israeli settler housing.
The other, “The Gatekeepers,” consists of interviews with the last six directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s feared internal security service. While the camera cuts from talking heads to stock news footage, the interviewees discuss their battles with terrorists, the moral dilemmas of ordering assassinations and abusive interrogation, and Israel’s intractable confrontation with Palestinian nationalism.
Both films are painful to watch, but for my money, “The Gatekeepers” is much harder. True, the villagers in “5 Broken Cameras” tell a wrenching story of army repression and encroaching occupation. But the film never shows the Israeli side, doesn’t discuss the corrosive impact of Palestinian terrorism, never asks what Israel’s alternatives are. It’s all too easy to dismiss.
“The Gatekeepers” isn’t so easy. The narrators aren’t hostile critics accusing Israelis of abuse — they’re Israelis freely admitting abuse. And not just any Israelis — they’re the heads of Israel’s internal security apparatus. Not one or two disgruntled retirees, but every living ex-Shin Bet director.
Yes, they say, we abused suspects and killed bystanders. Our job was to stop terrorists, and we did. But they insist Israel has another option. It can extricate itself from the endless cycle of terrorism and repression by negotiating peace with the Palestinians and ending its occupation of the West Bank.