Two of the five nominees for Best Documentary at the Oscars this year center on relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Both offer very different things to their viewers. The Gatekeepers features talking-head interviews with leaders of Israeli's secret service, giving very candid opinions of their successes and failures. 5 Broken Cameras assembles footage from a Palestinian farmer's eponymous five broken cameras. Originally bought to document his fourth son's birth, the father, co-director Emad Burnat, turns his lens to his village's demonstrations and standoffs with the Israeli army. A fence has recently been built nearby around a recently constructed West Bank settlement, cutting off the farmers of Bil'in from their land and escalating tensions. The Israeli army, pronounced "jesh" in Arabic, is one of Burnat's son's first words, and by the end of the movie the word is pronounced enough for a non-native speaker to also commit the word to memory.
If The Gatekeepers offers more of an intellectual or political perspective, 5 Broken Cameras engenders a more emotional one. "We wanted the audience to feel despair," co-director Guy Davidi said in a post-screening Q&A at the Core Club in Manhattan last night. It's a bold thing to say, but given the somber feeling in the room after the credits rolled, utterly true. Burnat provides even-toned voice-over narration to most of the movie, forcing the audience to feel the rage and anger that he refuses to express, at least within the confines of the narrative. For Americans, the documentary can be particularly illuminating. Most experience the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only when it bubbles over into the international news: the times bombs go off, or when crowds of hundreds or thousands make their way into the streets. 5 Broken Cameras offers a more intimate, day-to-day view of what it's like to live in the West Bank. As Davidi confirmed in the Q&A, the atmosphere of the demonstrations can vary wildly. Sometimes, the protesters talk directly to the soldiers. A boy gives a befuddled Israeli soldier an olive branch. Other times, dozens of smoke bombs make protesters and bystanders alike double over and cough. And sometimes bullets are fired into the crowd, killing demonstrators.
The first question Davidi answered was a tough one: "How do you respond to people who say your documentary is one-sided?" "With love," he replied. Claiming that there is just one point-of-view, or presenting an argument as "balanced," as many journalists do, is not always honest, he contended. "There are many truths, many points-of-view. Choosing one is a gift." His goal was to be "unjudgmental," and to encourage the audience to feel the same way, exploring the actions of the Israelis and Palestinians in all their complexities. One woman had trouble with how Burnat exposed his children to the demonstrations. But in Davidi's reply, he mentioned that the alternative, complete sheltering, was impossible. At some point, Israeli soldiers may barge into your home (as happened to one family that made their children hide during demonstrations), and the result may be traumatizing for those who have not been inoculated and prepared for this type of encounter.
A man asked why the movie did not supply more context. "I think in every second you get context, but as life experience. It's a challenge to edit so you don't feel you are learning in that way," he responded. Indeed, there are no graphics or historical contextualization of what is going on, and when the man appeared to start to explain what he meant by context, Davidi smiled and cut him off. "Of course it's not what you're talking about, but it's what I am talking about."
Burnat was not at the Q&A, having returned home to Israel before he travels with his family to the Oscars in a couple of weeks. "He's happy about this film because it gives meaning to his sacrifice," Davidi said of Burnat's response to the documentary's success. Davidi and Burnat will be on the red carpet (undoubtedly a bit overshadowed by whatever dresses the actress nominees are wearing) in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, the documentary is already available on outlets such as Netflix (list here), so catch this worthy nominee in time to cheer for it during the Academy Awards.