Middle East

Oscars: From West Bank to Hollywood

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Media captionWatch the BBC's Kevin Connolly meet the 'rival' directors

We are all used to the glitzy rituals of the Oscar season. Once again this month reputations will be made, frocks will be scrutinised and thanks will be gushed. But this year's ceremony will differ from its predecessors in at least one important respect - it will offer a starring role to the Middle East peace process.

Two of the films nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary deal with the vexed issue of Israel and the Palestinians.

They tell the story in very different ways.

In Five Broken Cameras we follow the life of Emad Burnat, a Palestinian villager, as he chronicles a weekly protest against Israel's construction of its separation barrier through Bilin in the occupied West Bank.

When I visited his home he showed me the broken cameras in question - he can still describe in detail how Israeli soldiers and armed Jewish settlers smashed each and every one.

Perhaps the most striking is the one which has a hard rubber bullet wedged between the lens and the casing.

"This camera," he told me, "saved my life for sure."

'Living in denial'

The other Middle Eastern film nominated for the documentary Oscar is called The Gatekeepers and tells essentially the same story of Israel's occupation of the West Bank of the River Jordan from a very different perspective.

It contains some startlingly realistic computer generated image (CGI) footage but is chiefly remarkable for the interviews it features with every living former head of Israel's internal security agency, the Shin Bet.

They come across as pragmatic group of men - more flexible and creative in thought than many of the politicians they advise - at one point one of them even says that you become a little more of a leftist as you get older.

The director of The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, says it's interesting that two films about Israel and the Palestinians have been nominated for Oscars at a time when what used to be called the peace process between them is moribund.

He feels his film makes a powerful statement at a time when the issue of relations with the Palestinians does not seem to occupy much emotional or political energy in Israel.

"I think the fact that the Israeli public doesn't deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is because we are living in denial," he said.

"I think the nomination shows that the world or the international community - or the Oscar voters let's say - are much more interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than people here. I think that is sad and it should change."

Emad Burnat, whose film was made in partnership with the Israeli director Guy Davidi, also hopes that his work will make a difference in the political life of the Middle East.

He dreams of winning the Oscar of course, but he argues that winning the nomination represents a triumph for the Palestinian people.

"I think it's a political victory for Palestinian situation and the Palestinian issue," he said.

"This is the story of my life and the Palestinian situation. So I think that many people are changed by the story and believe that the film is changing more people."

Cinema of course does have the power to change the way we look at the world and the teams behind The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras certainly hope to change the way the world looks at the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.


Jerusalem Hebrew University cinema lecturer Raya Morag does not think it a paradox that the films have appeared at a moment when the peace process seems lifeless. She sees it as a straightforward example of artists filling a vacuum left by politicians.

She also believes that the powerfully argued documentaries will influence decision-makers even though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly indicated that he will not be watching The Gatekeepers.

"He has declared that he is not going to watch the film," Professor Morag said.

"Well I am sure he'll pick it up in some video store when it comes out and watch it very slowly and very secretly in a back room somewhere.

"Then it might be able to help, and as long as cinema is being used to make this harsh attack on the [Israeli] right then I think it can be influential."

Whatever you think of The Gatekeepers as a piece of cinema it is a remarkable achievement if only because such senior intelligence officials have been persuaded to talk so openly.

Image caption Six former heads of Shin Bet are interviewed in a film which reports say the prime minister does not intend to watch

Asked if he thought the same technique might be possible in say the United States or the United Kingdom Dror Moreh laughed.

"When I had the idea to use the six heads of the Shin Bet," he told me, "they said to me you are crazy, nobody will come, they will never speak - but it happened.

"I suggest to you that you go to the heads of MI5 and try… maybe nobody asked."

I met Mr Moreh in Tel Aviv before travelling into the West Bank to talk to Emad Burnat, a short journey that connects two places which are a world apart.

And of course it is a long way from either of them to Hollywood Boulevard.

But even if neither film goes on to win the Oscar for best documentary they have already succeeded where politicians have failed and got the wider world talking about Israel and the Palestinians again.

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