Palestinian film nominated for Oscar
A Palestinian film portraying the life of a
Palestinian photographer and his son in a village witnessing the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict on daily basis was nominated for an
Oscar in the documentary feature category.
This does not happen every day: a
Minister of Culture publicly rejoices because a film from her
country has not been awarded an Oscar. And not just one film, but
It happened this week. Limor Livnat, still Minister of Culture in
the outgoing government, told Israeli TV she was happy that
Israel’s two entries for Oscars in the category of documentary
films, which made it to the final four, did lose in the end.
Livnat, one of the most extreme Likud members, has little chance
of being included in the diminishing number of Likud ministers in
the next government. Perhaps her outburst was meant to improve her
Not only did she attack the two films, but she advised the
semi-official foundations which finance Israeli films to exercise
“voluntary self-censorship and deprive such unpatriotic films of
support, thus making sure that they will not be produced at all.
The documentaries in question are very different in character.
One, The Gatekeepers, is a collection of testimonies by six
successive chiefs of the General Security Service, Israel’s
internal intelligence agency, variously known by its Hebrew
initials Shin Bet or Shabak. In the US its functions are performed
by the FBI. (The Mossad is the equivalent of the CIA.)
All six service chiefs are harshly critical of the Israeli prime
ministers and cabinet ministers of the last decades. They accuse
them of incompetence, stupidity and worse.
The other film, 5 Broken Cameras, tells the story of the weekly
protest demonstrations against the “separation” fence in the
village of Bil’in, as viewed through the cameras of one of the
One may wonder how two films like these made it to the top of the
Academy awards in the first place. My own (completely unproven)
conjecture is that the Jewish academy members voted for their
selection without actually seeing them, assuming that an Israeli
film could not be un-kosher. But when the pro-Israeli lobby
started a ruckus, the members actually viewed the films,
shuddered, and gave the top award to Searching for Sugar Man.
I have not yet had a chance to see The Gatekeepers. Because of
that, I am not going to write about it.
However, I have seen 5 Broken Cameras several times – both in the
cinema and on the ground.
Limor Livnat treated it as an “Israeli” film. But that designation
is rather problematical.
First of all, unlike other categories, documentaries are not
listed according to nationality. So it was not, officially,
Second, one of its two co-producers protested vehemently against
this designation. For him, this is a Palestinian film.
As a matter of fact, any national designation is problematical.
All the material was filmed by a Palestinian, Emad Burnat. But the
co-editor, Guy Davidi, who put the filmed material into its final
shape, is Israeli. Much of the financing came from Israeli
foundations. So it would be fair to say that it is a
This is also true for the “actors”: the demonstrators are both
Palestinians and Israelis. The soldiers are, of course, Israelis.
Some of members of the Border Police are Druze (Arabs belonging to
a marginal Islamic sect.)
When the last of Emad Burnat’s sons was born, he decided to buy a
simple camera in order to document the stages of the boy’s growing
up. He did not yet dream of documenting history. But he took his
camera with him when he joined the weekly demonstrations in his
village. And from then on, every week.
Bil’in is a small village west of Ramallah, near the Green Line.
Few people had ever heard of it before the battle.
I heard of it for the first time some eight years ago, when Gush
Shalom, the peace organization to which I belong, was asked to
participate in a demonstration against the expropriation of some
of its lands for a new settlement, Kiryat Sefer (“Town of the
When we arrived there, only a few new houses were already
standing. Most of the land was still covered with olive trees. In
following protests, we saw the settlement grow into a large town,
totally reserved for ultra-orthodox Jews, called Haredim, “those
who fear (God)”. I passed through it several times, when there was
no other way to reach Bil’in, and never saw a single man there who
was not wearing the black attire and black hat of this community.
The Haredim are not settlers per se. They do not go there for
ideological reasons, but just because they need space for their
huge number of offspring. The government pushes them there.
What made this first demonstration memorable for me was that the
village elders emphasized, in their summing-up, the importance of
non-violence. At the time, non-violence was not often heard about
in Palestinian parlance.
Non-violence was and remains one of the outstanding qualities of
the Bil’in struggle. From the first demonstration on, week after
week, year after year, non-violence has been the hallmark of the
Another mark was the incredible inventiveness. The elders have
long ago given way to the younger generation. For years, these
youngsters strived to fill every single demonstration with a
specific symbolic content. On one occasion, protesters were
carried along in iron cages. On another, we all wore masks of
Mahatma Gandhi. Once we brought with us a well-known Dutch
pianist, who played Schubert on a truck in the midst of the melee.
On yet another protest, the demonstrators chained themselves to
the fence. At another time, a football match was played in view of
the settlement. Once a year, guests are invited from all over the
world for a symposium about the Palestinian struggle.
The fight is mainly directed at the “Separation” Fence, which is
supposed to separate between Israel and the occupied Palestinian
territories. In built-up areas it is a wall, in open spaces it is
a fence, protected on both sides by a broad stretch of land for
patrol roads and barbed wire. The official purpose is to prevent
terrorists from infiltrating into Israel and blowing themselves up
If this were the real purpose, and were the wall built on the
border, nobody could fairly object. Every state has the right to
protect itself. But that is only part of the truth. In many
regions, the wall/fence cuts deeply into Palestinian territory,
ostensibly to protect settlements, in reality to annex land. This
is the case in Bil’in.
The original fence cut the village off from most of its lands,
which were earmarked for the enlargement of the settlement now
called Modi’in Illit (“Upper Modi’in”). The real Modi’in is an
adjacent township within the Green Line.
In the course of the struggle, the villagers appealed to the
Israeli Supreme Court, which finally accepted part of their claim.
The government was ordered to move the fence some distance nearer
to the Green Line. This still leaves a lot of land for the
In practice, the complete wall/fence annexes almost 10% of the
West Bank to Israel. (Altogether, the West Bank constitutes a mere
22% of the country of Palestine is [is as] it was before 1948.)
Once Emad Burnat started to take pictures, he could not stop. Week
after week he “shot” the protests, while the soldiers shot
(without quotation marks) at the protesters.
Tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets were used by the military
every week. Sometimes, live ammunition was deployed. Yet in all
the demonstrations I witnessed, there was not a single act of
violence by the protesters themselves – Palestinians, Israelis or
international activists. The demonstrations usually start in the
center of the village, near the mosque. When the Friday prayers
end (Friday is the Muslim holy day), some of the devout join the
young people waiting outside, and a march to the fence, a few
kilometers away, commences.
At the fence, the clash happens. The protesters push forward and
shout, the soldiers launch tear gas, stun grenades and rubber
bullets. The gas canisters hit people (Rachel, my wife, had a big
bruise on her thigh for months, where a canister had hit her.
Rachel was already carrying a fatal liver disease and was strictly
warned by her doctor not to come near tear gas. But she could not
resist taking photos close up.)
Once the melee starts, boys and youngsters – not the demonstrators
themselves – on the fringes usually start to throw stones at the
soldiers. It is a kind of ritual, a test of courage and manhood.
For the soldiers this is a pretext for increasing the violence,
hitting people and gassing them.
Emad shows it all. The film shows his son grow up, from baby to
schoolboy, in between the protests. It also shows Emad’s wife
begging him to stop. Emad was arrested and seriously injured. One
of his relatives was killed. All the organizers in the village
were imprisoned again and again. So were their Israeli comrades. I
testified at several of the trials in the military court, located
in a large military prison camp.
The Israeli protesters are barely seen in the film. But right from
the beginning, Jews played an important part in the protests. The
main Israeli participants are the “Anarchists against the Wall”, a
very courageous and creative group. (Gush Shalom activist Adam
Keller is shown in a close-up, trying out a passive resistance
technique he had learned in Germany. Somehow it did not work.
Perhaps you need German police for it.)
If the film does not do full justice to the Israeli and
international protesters, that is quite understandable. The aim
was to showcase the Palestinian non-violent resistance.
In the course of the struggle, one of Emad’s cameras after another
was broken. He is now wielding camera No. 6.
This is a story of heroism, the heroic struggle of simple
villagers for their lands and their country.
Long after Limor Livnat will be forgotten, people will remember
the Battle of Bil’in.
President Barack Obama would be well advised to see this film
before his forthcoming visit to Israel and Palestine.
Some years ago, I was asked to make the laudatory speech at a
Berlin ceremony, in which the village of Bil’in and the
“Anarchists against the Wall” were decorated for their courage.
Slightly paraphrasing President John Kennedy’s famous speech in
Berlin, I proposed that every decent person in the world should
proudly proclaim: “Ich bin ein Bil’iner!”
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush