Two Israeli-produced documentaries about the conflict have been nominated for an Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Thursday.
Video courtesy of jn1.tv
Few Israeli films have contended in the Best Documentary category before. The two selected films represent rare recognition of foreign entrants in a category dominated by American productions.
The two films examine the conflict from contrasting viewpoints, one through the eyes of the occupier and the other through those of the occupied. Neither does the Israeli government any favors – though it helped foot the bill.
"The Gatekeepers" features candid interviews with retired Israeli spymasters, while "5 Broken Cameras" tells the personal story of an amateur Palestinian cameraman who documents clashes between his fellow villagers and Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Both films were listed by the New York Times as "Critics' Picks," and "The Gatekeepers" won praise from the paper's chief critic as one of the best documentaries of 2012.
"This is an exciting moment for me," said "The Gatekeepers" director Dror Moreh. "I never dreamed that a journey which began four years ago would develop into a film competing for the American Oscar.
"It is a great privilege to have this film selected to compete on the most prestigious stage of the world of cinema, and deepen Israeli cinema's exposure in the world.
"Every filmmaker dreams of the news we just got, which opens new routes for the film and will allow the message of 'The Gatekeepers' to reach wide audience both outside Israel and in Israel. Yet I must note that for me, exposing the film to Israel's citizens is the most significant thing."
Guy Davidi, who co-directed "5 Broken Cameras" with Emad Burnat, said Thursday: "Emad and I are very happy about the Oscar nomination, and we're not the only ones – our families and the people of all the villages presented in the film, who have chosen a non-violent struggle together with the Israeli and international activists, are happy about it too.
"If an Oscar nomination – and perhaps even winning the prize – has any significance, it is in spreading the story to as many people as possible around the world. I hope that following the nomination, Education Ministry officials will also consider screening the film in schools, which they have refused to do so far.
Soul-searching portraits of Israel
Israel's overall image in the world has taken a beating because of the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians, but even critics say its film industry shows that Israel remains a vibrant democracy. In recent years, international film festivals have awarded Israeli directors accolades for their soul-searching portraits of the country.
Israeli films were finalists for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film four times between 2008 and 2012, giving Israel more nominations during that period than any other country. Three of the films dealt with the Israeli-Arab issue.
Films going beyond the conflict have also scooped up awards. A feature film this year about the country's cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish community won the best actress award at the 2012 Venice International Film Festival, though it did not make the cut for the Oscars.
This "golden age" of Israeli cinema is almost counter-intuitive. While shining a critical light on Israeli policies and society, the films have been significantly bankrolled by the government.
"Our ability at self-criticism is very rare," said Yehuda Stav, chief film critic at the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. "There is complete freedom (in Israel) to make documentary films that talk about our problems, that criticize what we do."
In Israel's informal society, filmmakers and journalists have easy access to senior officials. That helped director Dror Moreh secure exclusive interviews with some of Israel's most shadowy figures: six retired directors of Israel's domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet.
The position is so secretive that until recently, the director of the Shin Bet was long known to the public only by his first initial, and his identity was disclosed only upon retirement.
In Moreh's film, they sit before the camera dressed informally in polo shirts or suspenders, speaking frankly about their memories of tracking Palestinian militants and radical Israeli settlers.
Their accounts are woven together with animated graphics that bring to life archival photos and news clippings, to reveal the behind-the-scenes calculations during targeted killings and interrogations.
In more private moments, the spymasters speak about the morality of their actions.
"For them (the enemy), by the way, I was also a terrorist," said Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet chief from 2005 to 2011. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
Together, the security chiefs' testimonies offer biting criticism about Israel's failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying military might alone cannot bring peace.
"These moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist," said Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet head from 1988 to 1994.
"We're winning all the battles," said Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, "And we're losing the war."
Moreh said he wanted his film to change the understanding of the Mideast conflict by featuring the people whose job it was to manage it.
"They are responsible for targeted assassinations, for torture, for getting information," Moreh said in an interview. The criticism they voice "didn't come from the leftists, it came from the heart of the defense establishment. If they say such things, then, OK, there must be something to it."
'Our crazy reality gives us great material'
The other film nominated for an Oscar, "5 Broken Cameras," features footage shot by Palestinian farmer and amateur filmmaker Emad Burnat, who bought a camera to film home videos but ended up documenting six years of family life on the backdrop of weekly Palestinian demonstrations against the construction of Israel's West Bank separation barrier through his village of Bilin.
Those demonstrations started the same week his son was born. His film shows his son's birthday parties along with the young boy's developing awareness of the political realities he was born into.
One by one, Burnat's cameras were damaged by an Israeli army tear gas canister, hit by rubber bullets, thrown to the ground by an angry Jewish settler, and smashed in a tractor accident. When his cameras broke, he suffered serious injuries.
"The camera was always my friend," said Burnat. "I was connected to the camera, the camera was connected to me."
Both films were produced with help from international funds, but also with significant support from the Israeli government. Many governments, particularly in Europe, provide funding to their local film industries.
The Israeli connection caused difficulties for Burnat's movie. Film festivals in Dubai, Qatar and Egypt refused to screen his film, Burnat said. They offered no explanation, he said, but films bankrolled by Israel are generally not shown in Arab countries because of a longstanding Arab cultural boycott of Israeli cinema.
Israel has five main film funds that hand out funding to a pool of applicants. Israeli cinema professionals choose which movies get funded, not politicians.
Even so, film executives say they've felt governmental attempts to exert influence on their artistic independence.
One said local producers have felt pressured to "make films that show Israel in a sweeter light." The executive spoke anonymously because his films depend on government funding.
Meir Bardugo, a spokesman for Culture Minister Limor Livnat, said the minister believes that "Israeli cinema doesn't have to be anti-Israeli," but denied that she intervenes in the content of Israeli films. "If Livnat would interfere, these two films wouldn't get to the Oscars," Bardugo said.
Moreh said he and his colleagues are committed to critical and compelling storytelling.
"Our crazy reality in this region gives us great material," Moreh said. "(Israeli) cinema is alive, breathing, kicking."
The Civil War saga "Lincoln" leads the Academy Awards with 12 nominations, including best picture, director for Steven Spielberg and acting honors for British-born Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.
Also among the nine nominees for best picture Thursday: the old-age love story "Amour"; the Iran hostage thriller "Argo"; the independent hit "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; the slave-revenge narrative "Django Unchained"; the musical "Les Miserables"; the shipwreck story "Life of Pi"; the lost-souls romance "Silver Linings Playbook"; and the Osama bin Laden manhunt chronicle "Zero Dark Thirty."
Oscar winners will be announced February 24.