Oscar documentary contender on Palestinians angers many
BILIN, West Bank • An Oscar-nominated documentary about this West Bank hamlet has managed to infuriate people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
In Israel, some are asking why the government helped fund a film so scathing in its criticism of its own policies, while Palestinians are shocked that the film is winning accolades for being "Israeli."
"5 Broken Cameras" is the story of a yearslong struggle by residents of Bilin to wrest their village lands back from Israel's military.
The title refers to the number of cameras that the main protagonist, Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat, had broken by Israeli forces as he sought to film weekly demonstrations against the military. Residents were protesting the seizure of about half the village lands to construct a separation barrier running through parts of the West Bank.
The $400,000 documentary was made with contributions from Israeli and French government film funds. It is the latest in a series of well-received movies that are highly critical of Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians, yet also funded with state money.
Another Israeli-funded documentary, "The Gatekeepers," has also been nominated for an Oscar.
That film interviews the former heads of Israel's internal security service about how they suppressed Palestinians over the decades in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their message is that military force has its limits, and that ultimately Israel must take advantage of its military superiority to seek peace.
The projects expose a contradiction in Israeli society. While the military rules over millions of Palestinians, the government funds a vibrant arts scene that is often scathing in its criticism of official policy. Many here wonder why the government would want to be party to projects that make it look so bad.
Almagor, a right-wing Israeli group that represents families who have lost loved ones to Palestinian violence, described the film as "incitement." It said the documentary demonizes Israeli soldiers and at times is anti-Semitic.
Others, though, say such films are a badge of honor. Danny Danon, a hard-line member of the ruling Likud Party, said funding critical movies underscores the vibrancy of Israel's democracy, even if it provides ammunition for critics.
"I think there will be groups who are against Israel no matter what," Danon said. "This is one example of the price of keeping a strong democracy. We are not interfering in the contents of the movies that are being produced in Israel."
The office of Culture Minister Limor Livnat, which oversees the funds that distribute grants to filmmakers, declined comment. Livnat is also a Likud member.
The documentary's protagonists are dismayed that the film is affiliated with Israel. Even though the Academy does not classify nominees in the documentary feature category by country, Israeli officials have pitched "5 Broken Cameras" as their own at the Oscars.
Palestinians said they did not want Israelis to take credit for a film that documents how they have suffered at the hands of the military.
"They say it's an Israeli film. It is not an Israeli film," said taxi driver Adib Abu-Rahmeh, who is in the documentary. "Are the people in the film Israelis? The people who suffered, who were shot, who were arrested, who were hurt, were they Israelis?"
Davidi, the film's Israeli partner, rejected the criticism. He said the movie should be seen for what it is: A human portrayal of the village residents.
"For me, documentaries have no identities," he said. "Here are the facts: The film is a Palestinian-Israeli-French co-production with a Palestinian and Israeli director," he added.
He said he would like people to stick with the facts and not get into a territorial fight on the identity of the film.
"The film tells the story of Emad and the nonviolent movement in Bilin, and that's what's important" Davidi said.
The struggle is viewed through the eyes of Burnat's wide-eyed son Gibreel, whose first birthday coincides with the start of protests and whose childhood is shaped by demonstrations, soldiers and families fraying under pressure.
"I had an idea of the film, that it should be about my family, about ordinary things, to make the film closer to the people," Burnat told The Associated Press.
In Bilin, far away from the glitz of Hollywood, there is little excitement over the movie. Few residents have seen it and hopes are dim that the sudden attention will help their cause.
"I heard there was a film. I heard it was nominated for a prize. That's important," said resident Rizan Abu-Rahmeh, a 23-year-old housewife, pregnant and clutching her pigtailed-daughter's hand near Bilin's stone-built mosque.
"But we don't want the prize. We want what's behind the prize. We want the land that was taken," she said.
Conversations with the villagers betray a weariness that is reflected in the film.
"What's an Oscar, anyway?" asked an elderly woman, Umm Hazem. Five of her seven sons were imprisoned for throwing rocks during protests over the years, and her family's lands remain behind the barrier.
"We paid a high price, and we didn't get anything in return," she said.
Over eight years of weekly demonstrations, villagers count two slain residents and dozens wounded and detained in clashes with Israel.
Of some 500 acres of confiscated land, villagers wrested back about a third of their rolling, terraced groves, or some 170 acres, after a protracted legal struggle in Israel's Supreme Court. They have exhausted all local legal avenues to claim the remaining 330 acres of land, said lawyer Emily Schaefer, who represents Bilin.
Israel has said it built the separation barrier, which snakes hundreds of miles across the frontier between Israel and the West Bank, to keep suicide bombers out of the country. But Palestinians say barrier, which frequently dips into the West Bank, is an excuse for seizing land.
Israel's Defense Ministry says Bilin residents are still able to access their farmlands through a gate manned by soldiers 24 hours a day.
Activist Kefar Mansour said it was hard to get excited about a documentary that showed their day-to-day life, even if the scenes are shocking to outside viewers. In one scene, for instance, Gibreel asks his father why he can't slay Israeli soldiers with knives after a family friend is killed.
"People outside clap when they see powerful images in the film, but for us that's like normal, day-to-day life," Mansour said.
The 31-year-old Mansour is one of the few people in town who seem excited about the Oscar nomination. "It shows nothing is impossible," he said.
Since the movie was made, Gibreel, now 8, has become a mini-celebrity, said his mother Suraia, 42, who logs into his Facebook account to keep track of her son's fans.
Suraia, a devout Muslim Palestinian born in Brazil who speaks Arabic with a heavy accent, will join her husband at the Oscar ceremony along with Gibreel an event few Palestinians from the West Bank ever attend.
"I love watching the Oscars. I never imagined I'd be with those people," she laughed.
"When this movie is shown (after) the Oscars, millions of people will know the story," she added. "They will know about the Palestinian cause. Many people abroad don't even know what Palestine is."