THIS DOES not happen every day: a Minister of Culture publicly rejoices
because a film from her country has NOT been awarded an Oscar. And not just
one film, but two.
It happened this week. Limor Livnat, still Minister of Culture in the outgoing
government, told Israeli TV she was happy that Israel’s two entries for Oscars
in the category of documentary films, which made it to the final four, did
lose in the end.
Livnat, one of the most extreme Likud members, has little chance of being
included in the diminishing number of Likud ministers in the next government.
Perhaps her outburst was meant to improve her prospects.
Not only did she attack the two films, but she advised the semi-official
foundations which finance Israeli films to exercise “voluntary self-censorship
and deprive such unpatriotic films of support, thus making sure that they will
not be produced at all.
THE TWO documentaries in question are very different in character.
One, The Gatekeepers, is a collection of testimonies by six successive chiefs
of the General Security Service, Israel’s internal intelligence agency,
variously known by its Hebrew initials Shin Bet or Shabak. In the US its
functions are performed by the FBI. (The Mossad is the equivalent of the CIA.)
All six service chiefs are harshly critical of the Israeli prime ministers and
cabinet ministers of the last decades. They accuse them of incompetence,
stupidity and worse.
The other film, 5 Broken Cameras, tells the story of the weekly protest
demonstrations against the “separation” fence in the village of Bil’in, as
viewed through the cameras of one of the villagers.
One may wonder how two films like these made it to the top of the Academy
awards in the first place. My own (completely unproven) conjecture is that the
Jewish academy members voted for their selection without actually seeing them,
assuming that an Israeli film could not be un-kosher. But when the pro-Israeli
lobby started a ruckus, the members actually viewed the films, shuddered, and
gave the top award to Searching for Sugar Man.
I HAVE not yet had a chance to see The Gatekeepers. In spite of that, I am not
going to write about it.
However, I have seen 5 Broken Cameras several times – both in the cinema and
on the ground.
Limor Livnat treated it as an “Israeli” film. But that designation is rather
First of all, unlike other categories, documentaries are not listed according
to nationality. So it was not, officially, “Israeli”.
Second, one of its two co-producers protested vehemently against this
designation. For him, this is a Palestinian film.
As a matter of fact, any national designation is problematical. All the
material was filmed by a Palestinian, Emad Burnat. But the co-editor, Guy
Davidi, who put the filmed material into its final shape, is Israeli. Much of
the financing came from Israeli foundations. So it would be fair to say that
it is a Palestinian-Israeli co-production.
This is also true for the “actors”: the demonstrators are both Palestinians
and Israelis. The soldiers are, of course, Israelis. Some of members of the
Border Police are Druze (Arabs belonging to a marginal Islamic sect.)
When the last of Emad Burnat’s sons was born, he decided to buy a simple
camera in order to document the stages of the boy’s growing up. He did not yet
dream of documenting history. But he took his camera with him when he joined
the weekly demonstrations in his village. And from then on, every week.
BIL’IN IS a small village west of Ramallah, near the Green Line. Few people
had ever heard of it before the battle.
I heard of it for the first time some eight years ago, when Gush Shalom, the
peace organization to which I belong, was asked to participate in a
demonstration against the expropriation of some of its lands for a new
settlement, Kiryat Sefer (“Town of the Book”).
When we arrived there, only a few new houses were already standing. Most of
the land was still covered with olive trees. In following protests, we saw the
settlement grow into a large town, totally reserved for ultra-orthodox Jews,
called Haredim, “those who fear (God)”. I passed through it several times,
when there was no other way to reach Bil’in, and never saw a single man there
who was not wearing the black attire and black hat of this community.
The Haredim are not settlers per se. They do not go there for ideological
reasons, but just because they need space for their huge number of offspring.
The government pushes them there.
What made this first demonstration memorable for me was that the village
elders emphasized, in their summing-up, the importance of non-violence. At the
time, non-violence was not often heard about in Palestinian parlance.
Non-violence was and remains one of the outstanding qualities of the Bil’in
struggle. From the first demonstration on, week after week, year after year,
non-violence has been the hallmark of the protests.
Another mark was the incredible inventiveness. The elders have long ago given
way to the younger generation. For years, these youngsters strived to fill
every single demonstration with a specific symbolic content. On one occasion,
protesters were carried along in iron cages. On another, we all wore masks of
Mahatma Gandhi. Once we brought with us a well-known Dutch pianist, who played
Schubert on a truck in the midst of the melee. On yet another protest, the
demonstrators chained themselves to the fence. At another time, a football
match was played in view of the settlement. Once a year, guests are invited
from all over the world for a symposium about the Palestinian struggle.
THE FIGHT is mainly directed at the “Separation” Fence, which is supposed to
separate between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. In built-up
areas it is a wall, in open spaces it is a fence, protected on both sides by a
broad stretch of land for patrol roads and barbed wire. The official purpose
is to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Israel and blowing themselves
If this were the real purpose, and were the wall built on the border, nobody
could fairly object. Every state has the right to protect itself. But that is
only part of the truth. In many regions, the wall/fence cuts deeply into
Palestinian territory, ostensibly to protect settlements, in reality to annex
land. This is the case in Bil’in.
The original fence cut the village off from most of its lands, which were
earmarked for the enlargement of the settlement now called Modi’in Illit
(“Upper Modi’in”). The real Modi’in is an adjacent township within the Green
In the course of the struggle, the villagers appealed to the Israeli Supreme
Court, which finally accepted part of their claim. The government was ordered
to move the fence some distance nearer to the Green Line. This still leaves a
lot of land for the settlement.
In practice, the complete wall/fence annexes almost 10% of the West Bank to
Israel. (Altogether, the West Bank constitutes a mere 22% of the country of
Palestine as it was before 1948.)
ONCE EMAD BURNAT started to take pictures, he could not stop. Week after week
he “shot” the protests, while the soldiers shot (without quotation marks) at
Tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets were used by the military every week.
Sometimes, live ammunition was employed. Yet in all the demonstrations I
witnessed, there was not a single act of violence by the protesters themselves
– Palestinians, Israelis or international activists. The demonstrations
usually start in the center of the village, near the mosque. When the Friday
prayers end (Friday is the Muslim holy day), some of the devout join the young
people waiting outside, and a march to the fence, a few kilometers away,
At the fence, the clash happens. The protesters push forward and shout, the
soldiers launch tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. The gas canisters
hit people (Rachel, my wife, had a big bruise on her thigh for months, where a
canister had hit her. Rachel was already carrying a fatal liver disease and
was strictly warned by her doctor not to come near tear gas. But she could not
resist taking photos close up.)
Once the melee starts, boys and youngsters – not the demonstrators themselves
- on the fringes usually start to throw stones at the soldiers. It is a kind
of ritual, a test of courage and manhood. For the soldiers this is a pretext
for increasing the violence, hitting people and gassing them.
Emad shows it all. The film shows his son grow up, from baby to schoolboy, in
between the protests. It also shows Emad’s wife begging him to stop. Emad was
arrested and seriously injured. One of his relatives was killed. All the
organizers in the village were imprisoned again and again. So were their
Israeli comrades. I testified at several of the trials in the military court,
located in a large military prison camp.
The Israeli protesters are barely seen in the film. But right from the
beginning, Jews played an important part in the protests. The main Israeli
participants are the “Anarchists against the Wall”, a very courageous and
creative group. (Gush Shalom activist Adam Keller is shown in a close-up,
trying out a passive resistance technique he had learned in Germany. Somehow
it did not work. Perhaps you need German police for it.)
If the film does not do full justice to the Israeli and international
protesters, that is quite understandable. The aim was to showcase the
Palestinian non-violent resistance.
In the course of the struggle, one of Emad’s cameras after another was broken.
He is now wielding camera No. 6.
THIS IS a story of heroism, the heroic struggle of simple villagers for their
lands and their country.
Long after Limor Livnat will be forgotten, people will remember the Battle of
President Barack Obama would be well advised to see this film before his
forthcoming visit to Israel and Palestine.
Some years ago, I was asked to make the laudatory speech at a Berlin ceremony,
in which the village of Bil’in and the “Anarchists against the Wall” were
decorated for their courage.
Slightly paraphrasing President John Kennedy’s famous speech in Berlin, I
proposed that every decent person in the world should proudly proclaim: “Ich
bin ein Bil’iner!”