When an Oscar drives a wedge between Israeli and American Jews

1/16/13 Ha’aretz

The Israeli film industry is going through a golden age. This year, not one but two films got the Oscar nomination for best documentary. Israel has never before had a film nominated for best documentary; now it has two.

Yet, despite having had two films nominated for the most famous film award in the world, the Israeli diplomatic missions in the United States have failed to mention the achievement on their websites (by the time this went to press). Here are two films that received Israeli taxpayer money to be made, have been selected as the best of the best, and these websites – that normally burst with information on every Israeli achievement and innovation – omit this incredible accolade.

The diplomatic missions are in a bind of how to promote this achievement without talking about the content of these films.

For so long, the popular image of Israel in Hollywood was told through the blue eyes of Paul Newman in Exodus. Though not lavished at the Oscars, it created an epic narrative that captured the minds of the country. With the selection of these two Israeli documentaries, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is showing its respect for those who document the reality of Israel today, rather than the narratives told in the past.

The Israeli films nominated for Oscars this year, “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers,” tell the same story from the viewpoints of two different protagonists. 5 Broken Cameras demonstrates the non-violent resistance movement that has been growing in the West Bank over the past few years. It brings Israeli activists together with Palestinian landowners who are seeing their land confiscated and cut off; weekly marches and demonstrations have been taking place for years.

To many skeptical pro-Israel folks who feel that the non-violent marches are a façade and that there is always a security threat in the demonstrations, “The Gatekeepers” bluntly tells them of the need to give Palestinians their own state, portraying this message via the most powerful messengers around; six former directors of the Shin Bet security service.

Here, the men who were charged with keeping Israel safe go on camera stressing the desperate need for two states. Each man, in his own way, tells the camera that they know all there is to know in the security realm and have come to the same conclusion.

Without an Oscar nomination, this film would have a limited impact on the Jewish-American community. While large Jewish communities regularly host Jewish film festivals and arts events that showcase films from around the world, the audiences at such events are niche. One would be hard pressed to say these events reach the “mainstream” population.

But the publicity garnered by an Oscar nomination pushes these films out of the dark of their niche audiences and into the light of prime time.

This may be present to Jewish Americans, for documenting the reality of the occupation is deeply uncomfortable to a community so invested in the Jewish state. While many groups will point to how these films demonstrate the democratic nature of Israel, they will be silent on the content of the films. The fact is that if either of the films win the award, they will have a bigger impact on both the U.S. Jewish community, and the U.S. film-watching public more generally, than any hasbarah group. Already, some of these groups are on the record attacking the films.

These two documentaries deserve all the praise and awards bestowed upon them. Their nominations will help them reach a wider audience internationally as only an Oscar nomination can do. Yet each director, I am sure, would trade all the international attention for domestic interest if they could.

The same does not go for the Israeli public. While these films will further reveal the ugliness and danger of the occupation to the wider world, the Israeli population will remain disinterested in the run-up to their own election. And they will continue to disappoint American Jews, who will go in droves to see these films, kvelling with pride at the Israeli nominations, only to discover a truth that encourages them to wonder what the people and government of Israel want, when the facts on the ground seem so clear as to the precarious nature of the status quo.

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2 thoughts on “When an Oscar drives a wedge between Israeli and American Jews

  1. Good article although I wanted to point out the words of Guy Davidi in both English and Hebrew below:

    This was released in Hebrew last night, after the Media carnival around the film:
    Many thanks for all the good wishes.
    I wanted to write a few words for this very complex day. When a film succeeds, you’re supposed to sit back and enjoy, but when a film like 5 Broken Cameras succeeds, a whole box of complex challenges opens up. Every side immediately has its interpretation of the filmmakers or the film. Some are Israelis who immediately appropriate the film for national pride or pride over the national arts, but obscure or completely omit the fact that it’s first and foremost also a Palestinian film. Not that a film should have a citizenship at all. On the other hand, there are also activists who are in turn offended by this appropriation and expect harsh statements in response; the kind of statements that would obliterate the possibility of having the film connect with a slightly broader audience. There are dear Israelis, some of them also inside the establishment itself, who supported and lifted up the film, such as the New Fund for Cinema and Television, who were the most incredible and supportive partners for the making of the film, and who are facing an established system that is threatening their existence and independence. And there are the Palestinians and the Arab World, for whom this detail makes it difficult to accept the film, and the film can’t even be screened there because of that.
    There is a nonviolent struggle that faces challenges not only from the Israeli occupation but also from within, and the portrayal of partnership with Israelis is a complex challenge, and a Palestinian director may find himself under attack for that. And then there are journalists and headline editors who are looking for half a sentence, a quarter of a sentence that they can wave around, and situate the left wing director in a provocative and nonthreatening space, and the Palestinian director in a nationalistic and nonthreatening space. And then there will be lots of talk-backs for a short while, and the whole matter will be forgotten and the audience will be happy that there is nothing new under the sun and they can continue their lives without disturbance or worry. And in that place, any achievement that was reached is crushed. This is a day with joy and sadness. Joy — it’s clear why, but sadness — about the ability of a delicate and complicated conversation to come out.

    Hebrew:

    תודה רבה לכל המאחלים.
    רציתי לכתוב כמה מילים ליום המאוד מורכב הזה. כשסרט זוכה להצלחה אתה אמור לשבת ולהנות אבל כשסרט כמו “חמש מצלמות שבורות” זוכה להצלחה כזו, תיבה שלמה של אתגרים לא פשוטים נפתחים. מיד כל צד מושך את הפרשנות שלו אל היוצרים או אל הסרט. חלק מהישראלים שמיד מנכסים את הסרט לגאווה הלאומית או הגאווה של היצירה המקומית אך מצניעים או מעלימים את זה שהוא לפני הכול גם סרט פלסטיני. לא שלסרט צריכה כלל להיות אזרחות. מצד שני ישנם גם אקטיביסטים שנפגעים חזרה מהניכוס הזה ומצפים לאמירות קשות כתגובה כאלו שיחסלו את האפשרות לקשר של הסרט עם קהל קצת רחב יותר. ישנם ישראלים יקרים וחלקים גם בממסד שתמכו והעצימו את הסרט כמו הקרן הקולנוע החדשה שהיו השותף המדהים והתומך ביותר לעשיית הסרט ושעומדים בפני מערכת ממוסדת שמאיימת על קיומם ועצמאותם. וישנם הפלסטינים והעולם הערבי שפרט זה מקשה עליהם לקבל את הסרט ושהצגת הסרט בכלל לא יכולה להתקיים שם בשל כך. ישנו מאבק בלתי אלים שמקבל אתגרים לא רק מהכיבוש הישראלי אלא גם מבפנים, והצגת השותפות עם ישראלים היא אתגר לא פשוט ובמאי פלסטיני שעשוי להמצא את עצמו בשל כך מותקף. וישנם עיתונאים ועורכי כותרות שמחפשים חצי משפט, רבע משפט שיוכלו לנופף ולמקם את הבמאי השמאלני במקום הפרובוקטיבי והלא מאיים ואת הבמאי הפלסטיני במקום הלאומני והלא מאיים. ואז יהיו הרבה טוקבקים לשעה קלה והעניין ישכח והקהל ישמח שאין חדש תחת השמש ויוכל להמשיך את חייו ללא הפרעה או טרדה. ובמקום הזה כל הישג שנעשה נרמס. זה יום שיש בו שמחה ועצב. שמחה מובן למה אבל עצב על היכולת של שיח עדין ומורכב לצאת החוצה.

  2. Thanks Gary, it is being widely reported as an Israeli film and that is why I put it as such – I tried to qualify through the piece that both films received funding from the state as a justification but thank you for putting the clarity in here

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