Movie Mondays

The Occasional Movie Monday presents critical analyses of recent films from Dr. L. PresumablyDrL is a New York-based educator who works to promote the critical use of documentary film in secondary classrooms. 

A decade ago, when I was teaching a class on Zionism and Israel at a Jewish high school in the United States, I showed my class a film (Jerusalem 1948: Yoom Ilak, Yoom Aleik) detailing the events of 1948 from the perspective of Palestinian Jerusalemites. My goal was not to promote that (or, for that matter, any other) perspective, but simply to expose these students – most of whom had never before heard the term Nakba – to the fact that there exists a counter-narrative to the one with which they were already quite familiar.

This, it turns out, is not so easily done.  At one point in the film, an elderly Palestinian woman, wearing a headscarf and missing several teeth, began to tell her story.  As she spoke, several students began to giggle. Others joined in, and the response grew into a chorus of derisive laughter loud enough that the woman’s testimony could scarcely be heard.  For many of my students, it seemed, it was simply impossible to see beyond the woman’s physical appearance and all the preconceptions it connoted.  She was, to them, the consummate “Other,” and they could neither see nor hear beyond her “otherness.”

I recalled this incident as I watched the remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras.  On the surface the film is the story of the story of the ongoing non-violent protests against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bi’ilin. Much of the footage was shot by Emad Burnat, who unwittingly becomes “the Bi’ilin cameraman” and chronicles five years of protests against the route of the barrier as it encroaches on agricultural land surrounding the village in order to separate it from the ever-expanding settlement of Modi’in Illit. Burnat’s five cameras see the bulldozers uprooting olive trees, the soldiers wielding their guns, the checkpoints, the confrontations, the tear gas, the bullets, the injuries, the deaths.

But the power of the film lies in the fact that Emad’s cameras see much, much more.  In the end, it is not the political that makes the film so exceptional, but the personal. Emad’s cameras slash through the seemingly endless layers of impenetrable and hyperbolic rhetoric that have engulfed the Israeli-Palestinian divide from the beginning and capture, as few documents have, the essential humanity of those entrapped within it. Emad’s cameras see the playful eyes of his youngest son, Gibreel (upon whose birth Emad decided to acquire his first camera). They see Gibreel squinting through the soap in his eyes as he takes a shower, staring nervously in the mirror as he gets a haircut, kicking up his feet while lying in bed watching cartoons. They see Emad’s wife Soraya hanging the laundry out to dry. They see Emad’s friend Phil – “El-Phil,” the “elephant” – cavorting with acrobats to the delight of the village children. They see the whimsically painted face of his son Yasin, sheepishly smiling as he and his backpack lean against a wall in a school courtyard.

The interweaving of these scenes of daily life with the chronicle of the protests reportedly came under the guidance of the film’s Israeli co-director, Guy Davidi (at least if one is to believe what one reads on Wikipedia). Davidi surely knew that for the film to connect with western (and presumably Israeli) audiences, viewers needed to be taken beyond the protests themselves, where Palestinians who confront Israeli soldiers could – like the woman in the film I had shown my class – be all too easily dismissed.  By taking viewers inside Bi’ilin and documenting the life that brews beyond the glare of the protests, 5 Broken Cameras paints a portrait of lives and individuals that one simply does not have the option of dismissing.  That it somehow manages to do so in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor overly simplistic makes it all the more extraordinary a document.

Because the sad reality is that in the end Emad’s cameras are unable simply to tell a story of prosaic ordinariness. The occupation intrudes at every turn. The political and the personal cannot be separated, not in Bi’ilin. When Soraya hangs her laundry, we hear bullets in the background; she matter-of-factly instructs her husband: “Don’t let the kids out. The soldiers are in the village.” Gibreel and his brother sit inside a parked car and watch as their uncle is carried off to jail. They pass through a checkpoint guarded by armed soldiers.  When four-year-old Gibreel witnesses violent death, we see him ask the innocent questions only a child can ask, and his father’s grim recognition of the moment his son seems to have lost his childhood forever.

Any good work of art functions at multiple levels. 5 Broken Cameras is a document of the Bi’ilin protests, to be sure, but it is much more than that. It is also a lyrical meditation on cameras and film and how one sees the world through them. (“I feel like the camera protects me,” Emad says at one point, “but it’s an illusion.”)

But from my perspective in the United States, it is most compelling as a work that makes the invisible visible. Like thousands of other American tourists, I have passed along the Trans-Israel Highway as it passes along the massive concrete separation barrier at Qalqilya. But I had no means of seeing beyond the barrier, of getting even the smallest glimpse of daily life in Qalqilya or anywhere else on the West Bank. Fortunately, the distributors of 5 Broken Cameras have made access to it relatively easy (it is available for streaming on Netflix and available as an instant video on at modest cost). It has aired on Israeli television, and Davidi has spearheaded an educational campaign to bring the film into secondary classrooms within Israel.  A short video of this project underscores the promise of works such as 5 Broken Cameras to humanize what is all too often seen in broad and abstract political terms.

 (A longer version of this video can be found here.)

A decade ago, one of my students began an essay about the separation barrier with the following lines: “The most easily distinguishing feature identifying an Israeli or a Palestinian is not found in garb, or accent, or driving ability (universally horrible throughout) but rather in how they characterize the other side. Israelis and Palestinians often see the other as a homogeneous group with a collective will that is alien to their own. The word ‘they’ is used a lot. They harbor terrorists, they teach hatred, they are ruining our lives, they do not care about us.” The student went on to lament the inability of each side to listen to and respect each other’s narratives. I hope he and his classmates have seen 5 Broken Cameras and have in the decade since I knew them developed the ability to see and hear “them,” to recognize there really is no “them,” but a collection of individuals with names and stories that have every right to be heard.


The Occasional Movie Monday presents critical analyses of recent films from Dr. L. PresumablyDrL is a New York-based educator who works to promote the critical use of documentary film in secondary classrooms. 

You can usually tell a lot more about the state of a society from what its artists are up to than from the pronouncements of its politicians and mainstream media. For Americans, Israeli cinema has long provided a much-needed window on Israeli life and politics. So in the coming weeks, this space will take an occasional peek into recent releases – at least those that have been made available to American viewers with English subtitles – that we hope will add depth to the discussion of the issues at the heart of this blog.

Israeli documentarians in particular have been quite busy of late, and much of their work has engaged in some very deep soul-searching about the Occupation, the rights of minorities, and a bit more indirectly, the whole Zionist enterprise.  It escaped few people’s notice that Israel accounted for two of the five documentaries recently nominated for an Academy Award – The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras (which isn’t really an “Israeli” film at all, but more about that in a future post). Of the two, both of which focus on the Occupation, Five Broken Cameras is the far more interesting piece of cinema, but a headline in Sunday’s papers made me think The Gatekeepers may be the best place to start.

Israel’s US Envoy: Gatekeepers Hindering PR efforts” relates Ambassador Michael Oren’s apparent discomfort at the negative effect the film and the considerable attention it has received are likely to have on “hasbara” efforts – as though it is somehow the film and not the realities behind it that are the actual source of the problem.  This is, of course, nothing but a repetition of the very old and very tired admonition in the Jewish community not to air one’s dirty laundry publicly, lest it give some sort of aid and comfort to the proverbial enemy. (“The other side is well aware of how to act and manipulate the media,” Oren notes.)  It’s an admonition that has been used most effectively in the American Jewish community in efforts to silence open discussion about Israel: You don’t live here, you don’t really understand, so you don’t have the right to an opinion. It’s an admonition this writer took seriously for a good long while – until I realized that all it accomplished was to allow everything one knows is wrong to flourish unchecked and unchallenged. Dirty laundry left in the hamper has a tendency to get ever dirtier.  Only laundry that hangs in the fresh air and rain stands a chance of getting clean.

Which is why recent films such as The Gatekeepers are so important. It’s not exactly clear from his piece whether Oren’s ire is aimed at the filmmaker, Dror Moreh, or at the six former Shin Bet chiefs who were interviewed in the film and the stuff that comes out of their mouths. He seems to have particular ire at viewers who are not getting a “balanced” view of things. He says: “This is a good movie that presents a narrative of 45 years of occupation, but is completely devoid of information on Israel’s peace plan offers – Barak’s Camp David attempts, then Olmert, from the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the rocket fire on us. Whoever views the movie without knowing the background, can leave feeling that Israel is to blame and didn’t do a thing.” (Who exactly does Oren think is plopping down $12 to see a Hebrew-language talking-heads documentary, anyway?)

Oren seems unaware that it is not the documentarian’s job to provide “balance,” but to document, to use the camera to bring viewers to places they would be unable to see and hear with the naked eye.  That is what The Gatekeepers does – or at least tries to do.  If anything, as a viewer, I rather felt that Moreh was a bit too timid with his subjects.  He simply lets them have their say, allowing them to criticize Shin Bet actions and policy without prodding them about their own complicity in it, or their motivations for speaking out at this particular moment. He simply sticks a microphone in front of them and lets them speak.  And while much of their commentary – e.g., Yaakov Peri’s statement that “I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist” – is eye-opening, much of it seems rather self-serving, not unlike Robert McNamara’s participation in The Fog of War. They are quick to point the finger at politicians from Rabin to Netanyahu. But it seems the film fails miserably at asking the larger unspoken question of the role all Israelis play in the perpetuation of an unjust and unsustainable system of occupation. There is no abstract “system” into which these men found themselves pulled and which unwittingly manipulated them into doing things they may now regret.  The “system” is created by individuals who make (or fail to make) decisions, and I’m always inclined to think there’s a particular cowardice in saying after the fact, “I really wish I hadn’t done that,” as though that undoes everything that has happened. (These are issues that Ra’an Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, addresses head on; much more on that film in a later post.)

All in all, The Gatekeepers is very much worth a look.  It is by no means great art.  As a work of film, its presentation is rather dull and its relentless score of scary-movie music is headache inducing. (One should not find himself thinking midway through a film, “Damn, this would have made an excellent New Yorker article.”)  Still, it is an important document.  Viewers should by no means take what the six subjects have to say at face value, but if they care at all about the futures of Israel and Palestine, they most certainly should hear them out.   The fact that it so gets under Ambassador Oren’s skin, and that the current Prime Minister flatly refuses to see it, speaks for itself.

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