Israeli Cinema: Hot Button Documentaries

Two Israeli films received Oscar nominations this year, both in the documentary category, and both for films that take a critical and look at the nation’s government and its actions.

The morning after both of those films lost, Israel’s right-wing leaders expressed their relief.

“The Israeli film, the anti-Israel ‘5 Broken Cameras’ did not win the Oscar. I did not shed a tear,” wrote Naftali Bennett, party leader of the pro-settler HaBayit HaYehudi party and a darling of the Israeli religious Zionist movement. His fellow party member, MK Uri Orbach, opted for a more sarcastic post. “Make a face like you’re disappointed that the two documentary films that ‘represent Israel’ didn’t win the Oscar for best documentary,” he wrote. “Oy, so unfortunate.”

A week before the Oscars, another Israeli film, “Rock the Casbah,” nabbed the Art Cinema Award at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival. While “Rock the Casbah” is not a docu, it too paints a harsh portrait of Israel, following a group of hapless young Israeli soldiers stationed in Gaza in 1989 as they struggle to keep a lid on the chaos around them.

All three movies take a long, hard look at the Israeli government. And all three were made with the help of government funds, sparking a debate about the obligation of filmmakers to self-censor in a nation facing serious security threats.

Many Israelis have praised “Casbah,” “Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers,” heralding them as examples of Israel’s thriving democracy.

“The Gatekeepers” helmer Dror Moreh says his film is pro-Israel.

In it, individual interviews with the six former leaders of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, are stitched together with archival footage and CGI simulations of security events. Each man shares his fears that the Israeli occupation, which each helped enforce, is sabotaging the nation’s democratic nature and perhaps putting its very future at risk. It’s quite a coup for documentary filmmaking in this militarily-censored country.

“The film came from them, with a great worry toward to the future of the State of Israel, given the situation with the Palestinians,” Moreh says.

The film does the Israeli government no favors, with the spymasters’ testimony accusing every Israeli prime minister of willful ignorance and intransigence on the issue of the Palestinians. It also castigates Israel’s extreme right-wing for incitement, homegrown terrorism, and stirring the pot that eventually swallowed up assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Those right-wingers are also present in “5 Broken Cameras,” co-helmed by Israeli Guy Davidi and Palestinian Emad Burnat.

The film’s footage, and the story for that matter, is Burnat’s, who spent 20 years working as a gardener in Israel before the border was closed on him by the second intifada. His West Bank village of Bil’in has long been a flashpoint for demonstrations against Israel’s security barrier, which cuts through much of its olive-tree-studded land. With extra time on his hands and a fourth son on the way, he picked up a camera, and soon found that he had a knack for documenting his fellow Palestinians and their struggle to save their land.

Davidi, who briefly lived in Bil’in while filming his first documentary, “Interrupted Streams,” began mentoring Burnat, and he says it was his idea to make “5 Broken Cameras” exclusively the Palestinian’s story. With Burnat’s steady voice narrating, the pic follows the growth of his youngest son Gibreel as his father films the ever-more-elaborate, and often bitter, protests against Israeli settlement expansion.

“Professionally it was a very hard choice,” Davidi admits of his decision to keep his own voice out of the action. “It’s hard for the ego … but I told myself, (Burnat) as a cameraman is a much more interesting story because it’ s a story of resistance. And it’s a positive story at the end. There is so much despair, and I knew despair had to be part of the film, but I had to find a light, and the light is his work.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to see either Oscar-nominated film. It’s not known whether or not he has chosen to view “Rock the Casbah.” But in an editorial in the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, columnist Dan Margalit called the accolades gathered by all three films a “cinematic intifada.” Margalit wrote his piece, he said, without seeing either “Gatekeepers” or “Cameras,” although he did say he had seen “Casbah” and found it “superficial.”

“I’m not opposed to funding films that are critical of Israel, but can’t scripts also be found that portray the Jewish side of the conflict and the heroes who paid with their lives fighting Palestinian terrorism? Something here is deficient at the core,” he wrote.

For “Casbah” helmer Yariv Horowitz, however, the issue is not about how the films are perceived abroad. It is about what they do for the people at home, who are clamoring for more honest depictions of that great Israeli albatross, the 45-year Palestinian occupation.

“We all live with the nagging question of whether or not we are doing the right thing, whether we have an alternative, whether people are mad at us, whether we are bad people,” he said in an interview with the daily Haaretz. “In that sense we are very tortured, and that is something that requires group therapy.”

Moreh, for his part, would likely agree.

“I didn’t start this film as an activist,” he tells Variety . “I am an Israeli citizen who is worried

for the fate of my country, and wanted to raise my concern in the only way that I know how to — which is by creating movies.”