Saturday, January 16, 2021

Can a Documentary Save Palestine?

By John Space - April 06, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Culture]
Tags: [Documentary] [5 Broken Cameras] [The Gatekeepers] [Budrus]

Emad Burnat (left), the Palestinian director of 5 Broken Cameras, and Abdallah Abu Rahmeh (right), one of the documentary's main protagonists, at the protest commemorating the eight anniversary of the weekly demonstrations in Bil'in. Photo by Lazar Simeonov.


Although neither film won an Academy Award, the very inclusion of 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers in this year's Oscar ceremonies signals that support for Palestinian resistance is becoming more mainstream. But although it may seem the Oscar nominations for the two films came out of nowhere, they are both part of a proud tradition of anti-occupation documentary filmmaking.

5 Broken Cameras has echoes of many earlier documentaries about the occupation, notably Budrus, the 2009 film chronicling the village of Budrus' successful struggle against the construction of the Aaaapartheid wall on village land. In Budrus, Brazilian documentary filmmaker Julia Bacha filmed all 55 demonstrations held in the village before the wall was rerouted in response to the protests. 

The village, however, succeeded in forcing Israel to reroute the barrier before the release of the film, meaning that the film itself could not have been the reason the wall was removed from Budrus' land. 

Similarly, the village of Bil'in (the focus of 5 Broken Cameras) won a significant victory against apartheid forces, causing the barrier to be rerouted, well before the film was released. 

The presence of cameras, whether or not a film is being made, often serves to reduce violence on the part of Israeli security forces

This does not mean, of course, that the films serve no purpose. The eighth anniversary of the start of demonstrations in Bil'in, coming at the height of 5 Broken Cameras' popularity, was certainly larger than it would have been if the film had not been released. And the simple fact of raising global awareness of the realities of the occupation is a worthy goal in itself.

And the presence of cameras, whether or not a film is being made, often serves to reduce violence on the part of Israeli security forces. This is a theme that is repeated often in both Budrus and 5 Broken Cameras, and in Budrus, Israeli soldiers are seen counting the number of cameras at a protest before making the decision whether or not to use force against demonstrators.

The case of The Gatekeepers raises a different set of issues about the effectiveness of documentaries as a tool for social change. Shortly after the release of the film, the Israeli leftist website +972 ran an interview with Gatekeepers filmmaker Dror Moreh, titled 'If this film does not lead to change, there is no hope for Israel.' Several weeks later, the New York Times published an interview with Moreh under the headline 'Most Israelis Are Not Listening." 

It was always unreasonable to expect that The Gatekeepers would lead to an immediate radical change in the occupation. But the film, featuring interviews with every former head of the Shin Bet, all of whom are critical of the occupation, received very little attention inside Israel despite the Oscar nomination and global press coverage. For a film that, according to its director, was specifically targeted at the Israeli public, this is a very disheartening outcome. If there were anything that could make Israelis care about the failures and human rights abuses of the occupation, it would certainly be the fact that every single person who was ever in charge of occupation policy is now against the occupation. It seems that, keeping with Moreh's statement, there in fact is 'no hope for Israel.' 

But again, this does not mean that the film serves no purpose. Like 5 Broken Cameras and Budrus, it is extremely useful in raising global awareness about the reality of Israeli crimes in Palestinian territory, especially given the Oscar nomination. It also serves as an invaluable historical record of the occupation, told from the rare perspective of the people in charge of actually carrying out criminal occupation policies.

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