Israel’s Oscar nominees tell us something about Israeli society…writes Or Avi-Guy

February 22, 2013 by Or Avi-Guy
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There are two Israeli films among the nominees for the 2013 Academy Award for best Documentary; Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” and Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras” (My review of “5 Broken Cameras” can be found here). This is yet another achievement for the Israeli film industry, which keeps on punching above its weight and produces world-acclaimed films, often acknowledged in film festivals around the globe.

Or Avi-Guy

Or Avi-Guy

But there is more to this story than the success of a small and modestly-resourced Israeli film industry, and that is its role in the public discourse about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how this role reflects the pluralistic nature of Israeli society, and its democratic institutions.

Both of the Oscar nominated Israeli films are highly critical of Israeli policies, Israeli decision makers and leadership and its security mechanisms (reviews of the films and their one-sided criticism of Israel can be found here, here, here and here). Both also enjoyed financial support and funding from Israeli Government bodies and foundations.

Why, one might ask, is Israeli tax-payer money being used to fund such films that, beyond merely being critical, are extremely one-sided and highly biased, and might contribute to the ongoing efforts to delegitimise and defame Israel? (This is certainly true of “5 Broken Cameras”, which is simply well-made Palestinian agitprop.) Wouldn’t such films only play into the hands of those who wish to promote the “Israel-evil, Palestinians-innocent” dichotomy? Wouldn’t the haters say “we told you so – even Israeli films reveal Israel’s wrongdoings”? Well, unfortunately they probably would, but this perspective is simplistic and superficial, and completely misses the point – the real lesson is not so much about the content of the films, but rather about artistic freedom, pluralism and freedom of expression.
One of the most common accusations raised against Israel is that it is not truly democratic, or that its democratic nature is flawed. It is claimed that dissent is silenced with regard to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, that the harsh realities are concealed from the public. Nothing could be further away from the truth, as the case of the vibrant, vocal and highly critical Israeli film industry proves.

Films like “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras”, much like “Waltz with Bashir,” “Ajami,” “Beaufort” and “Lebanon” and many others, are a part of the public debate about war and peace in Israel. They challenge perceptions, promote awareness and dialogue and, if they manage to avoid the pitfalls of prejudice, represent the complexity of Israeli reality, and the humanity in many impossible situations.

Contrary to the criticism, former and current Israeli governments see great importance and value in the contribution of the Israeli film industry in promoting pluralistic, open discussion as part of freedom of expression, regardless of the message or content of the film and its position regarding state policies. That is why it continues to support and fund films, knowing they are likely to be critical, and in accordance with liberal, democratic values and artistic freedom, does not interfere with the content of the films it funds.
Somewhat ironically, Palestinians have expressed discontent at the nomination of the Israeli-Palestinian collaboration -“5 Broken Cameras”- at the Oscars as an Israeli film (in fact, in the Best Documentary category, country of origin is not mentioned). They argue that since the film is about the Palestinian struggle against the security fence in the village of Bil’in, it is a Palestinian story, despite Israeli government funding and the fact that one of the co-directors is Israeli.

But try for a second to imagine the Palestinian Authority (PA) or Hamas funding a film that was critical of the Palestinian leadership – much less one that promoted a pro-Israeli narrative. It would never, ever happen. In fact, far from funding such a film, there would likely be strong PA efforts to prevent the film ever being made, as evidenced by the continuing efforts to arrest and prosecute Palestinians who criticise the Palestinian leadership on Facebook, in blogs or in the media.

Films such as “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras,” despite their skewed, black-and-white simplistic world views, their dubious agendas, and their relentless one-sided criticism of Israel, actually often reveal the full extent of freedom of expression in Israel. Artists and filmmakers, Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, are not only free to criticise any aspect of Israeli politics and society – they also get paid to do so, and they thrive. This is one of the secrets of the success of Israel as a society over the past 60 years.

Or Avi-Guy is a Policy Analyst with the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council


6 Responses to “Israel’s Oscar nominees tell us something about Israeli society…writes Or Avi-Guy”
  1. LIZZIE says:


  2. Liat Nagar says:

    I’m aware of the passion in your posting, and can’t help but be aware of where your sympathies lie, however am beginning to despair at the lack of questions asked at base about the situations discussed when they are elaborated in this way. The ‘peaceful, dignified and oppressed Palestinians’ you speak of were not before, and are not now – why? due to the continuing history of their refusal to accept Israel and Israelis as neighbours, their ongoing hate campaigns both within their school system and familial, and the continuing attacks perpetrated on Israel with the aim to kill, all with the agenda of getting rid of the Jews. Do you really believe that any other type of ‘control’ exercised by the IDF other than aggressive would (a) work and (b) be respected by the Arab population? Any hint of withdrawal or going easy in manner is seen in Arab eyes as capitulation or weakness and celebrated as such.

    I personally recoil from overt aggression and I do believe there will be some Palestinians who are both dignified and peaceful, however to lump them altogether in the stereotype you have … please, give me a break! To be able to see any kind of truth and sort out the lemons from the oranges, so to speak, it’s necessary to break down your focus into more recognisably accurate elements. That goes for the Israelis too. Then you have a truer, therefore more constructive, picture to work with.

    And when you’r speaking of the injustice of Policy, where’s the justice in the modern State of Israel having to battle for its life ever since it inception? How do you do that nicely? Most especially when time after time attempting to do so is spat upon?

  3. Liat Nagar says:

    You are right, Or Avi-Guy, to an extent. And I had to really strain myself to my most objective to say this, as, unfortunately, your perspective here will be ignored or lost on the many who instead will use these films to say “I told you so”. Also, personally, I am just simply sick to the stomach of the saccharine use of olive trees, or in this case, cameras, to emotively get a point across in relation to impeded access to some Palestinian territory due to the wall. Would we all, including Palestinians, rather have this kind of problem or a whole lot of dead people on both sides?

    As far as I’m concerned, what is more to the point is how well a film is made. The content can be along the lines of what you’ve elaborated, or not – what is important, and this is what any funding should be based upon, is the insight offered artistically, as well as the subtleties of given situations, and the complexity. There should be enough there for good contemplation and thought afterwards, enough there for transcendence above politics and religion, doctrine and propaganda, because that’s what good art does.

  4. Keren says:

    Great point!

  5. michael says:

    Another nail in the coffin for Israel in the eyes of the International community .
    If Emad Burnat’s film was a balanced movie about the Israel Palestinian saga it would definitely not have featured as a main story today by Al’ Ages Palestinian propagandist based in Jerusalem Ruth Pollard [ Jason Koutsoukis protege]
    Israel need not worry about annihilation by the Iranians & their proxy’s Hezbollah and Hamas the Israeli left both in Israel and abroad and doing a great job. Israel will just self destruct only with out the Arab/Muslim style violence .


  6. Richard says:

    Huh? Boy, talk about talking out of both sides of your mouth. You laud these films as indicative of freedom of thought in Israel, and I agree. But your gratuitous bashing of them as having “skewed, black-and-white simplistic world views, … dubious agendas, and … relentless one-sided criticism of Israel…” nonsense. The Gatekeepers features the narratives of all living ex-leaders of Shin Bet. These guys lived their whole lives in defense of the Zionist state, and the criticisms of Israeli policy by these hardheaded pragmatisits cannot fairly or accurately be so dismissed as “black and white,” nor “simplistic” nor in pusuit of any agenda other than educating the public as to the insane myopia and shortsightedness of sucessive Israeli administrations. For me, what is sad that they do not dwell on the INJUSTICE of such policy but, instead, merely its lack of rationality.
    As for 5 Broken Cameras, again your apparently mindless critiques are just inaccurate. The film is hardly a polemic. it is simply revelatory of what happens every day, every week in the Occupied West Bank. It tells a humanistic story with a small focus. I have been to that village (Bi’lin). I have witnessed the very type of aggressive control routinely exercized by the IDF against peaceful and dignified and oppressed Palestinians.
    Although I can understand your despearate attempt as an obviously hugely biased pro-Israel supporter to “make lemon-aid from your lemons”by trying to read the imporatance of tehse films as indicative of Israeli freedoms, your grossly inaccurate smears of these films undercuts any such praise for anyone who actually has seen the films and understands the real situation borne by years of unjust oppression.

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