I’m usually no fan of the Oscars. The “Academy” seems to have an unerring bias toward the showy and the obvious. But this year I’m excited. Not only because the stunningly un-showy and un-obvious Amour has a decent chance for the big Best Picture award (see my take on it here), but even more because the documentary section has two nominees that I really really want to see (yes, double really): 5 Broken Cameras, and The Gatekeepers.
The five broken cameras belong to the occupied: Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat. He got the first one the week his sixth son was born, and began using it as a kind of record for his children. Over the next five years, he documented life in his village of Bilin, the focus of weekly demonstrations against the construction of Israel’s “separation barrier,” aka The Wall (another excellent documentary than never got such recognition, despite an unforgettable long opening shot of the last concrete panel being put into place, cutting off the landscape).
One by one, Burnat’s cameras were smashed — by an IDF teargas canister, by rubber bullets, by angry Jewish settlers. Each time, he found another and went on filming, then teamed up with Israeli co-director Guy Davidi, who managed to partially fund the movie with a government grant — money, in suitably Middle Eastern irony, from the same government that broke at least two of Burnat’s cameras. (See the trailer here.)
The gatekeepers are the occupiers: six retired heads of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet (the acronym of sherutei bitahon — security services). It’s a talking-heads movie, yes, but these six are unprecedentedly candid about their actions and decisions, including torture and targeted assassination. Faced with the consequences of their actions as the Israeli right-wing becomes more intractable than ever, they wrestle openly with doubt and conscience, and this wrestling adds up to biting criticism of the occupation from deep within Israel’s defense establishment. (TimeOut New York has an interesting interview with director Dror Moreh, and you can see the trailer here.)
But the Oscars are still the Oscars, where “American” wins out over “foreign” and sub-titles are considered an undue tax on the moviegoer’s mind. So I doubt that either of these two will win the documentary award, which will probably go to Searching for Sugarman, a movie about trying to track down a Detroit singer-songwriter who dropped out of sight years ago.
And there’s a far tougher reason why neither 5 Broken Cameras nor The Gatekeepers is likely to win: Both lead to the same place, which is the urgent need to end the Israeli occupation, and find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to coexist. Oscar voters are doubtless terrified of taking such a basic political stand, let alone of recognizing either movie over the other and thus be seen as “taking sides.” Politics at the Oscars? The horror!
So in the spirit of both movies, here’s an idea: Give a joint award for best documentary this year, Oscar voters! 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers together. Wouldn’t that be a terrific statement?
[Note: both movies are scheduled for general release in the US in the next few weeks. I have no idea why the delay.]