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Oscar hopefuls take fresh look at Mideast conflict

Two new Oscar-nominated documentaries, "5 Broken Cameras" and "The Gatekeepers", examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from starkly different angles and with contrasting tones. takes a closer look.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in its seemingly endless pain and complexity, has proven a ripe subject for fictional filmmaking over the past several years.

But this winter, two new documentaries are adding fresh, unsettling perspective to the topic, tackling it from dramatically different angles and with nearly opposite tones and temperaments: “5 Broken Cameras” is a scorching blend of video diary and political advocacy, in which a Palestinian records his village’s confrontations with the Israeli army, while “The Gatekeepers” is a more cool-headed, rigorously journalistic investigation into Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet.

Both movies are up for the Best Documentary award at this year’s Oscars, to take place on February 24 in Los Angeles.

A first-hand account of life under occupation

In “5 Broken Cameras”, Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat (with the help of Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi) documents five years in his West Bank town of Bilin, where residents stage protests against the Israeli wall separating them from a Jewish settlement – and from their own olive groves.

What gives the film its wrenching urgency is the fact that much of what we see is footage shot by Burnat himself with cameras which, we learn, were broken one by one in scuffles with Israeli soldiers and settlers. Those clashes are violent; aside from the smashed cameras, we witness -- up close -- several serious injuries and at least one fatality. “5 Broken Cameras” is a blunt, viscerally powerful first-hand account of life under occupation.

It is also a purely and unapologetically subjective piece of filmmaking. There is no larger context provided, no attempt at even-handedness, no voice given to the poker-faced Israeli soldiers. Burnat and Davidi give us access to one slice of the conflict, packaging it into a sturdily constructed work that bristles with barely contained fury.

Still, no broader or more politically nuanced take on the Israeli-Palestinian mess can invalidate the personal pain that the film so vividly captures. Moreover, as "5 Broken Cameras" leaves one wondering: how can someone offer a balanced vision of a situation if he is literally living in the thick of it?

Winning the battles, losing the war?

Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” is a dryer documentary, blending talking heads, archival footage, fleeting re-enactments of top-secret spy missions, and spare but useful historical context. It may be more formally conventional than “5 Broken Cameras”, but the film is lean and riveting: a model of clarity, economy, and seamless editing, with a slow-building despair that leaves a different kind of sting than Burnat and Davidi’s more nakedly emotional movie.

The heart of “The Gatekeepers” consists of interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, which, since the 1967 war, has mainly been devoted to counterterrorism operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

With often astonishing candidness, the men recount their years learning Arabic, coercing Palestinian officials into providing information, tracking militants, and sometimes taking them out. They also discuss some of the key moments in the agency’s history: the deadly beating of two bus hijackers in 1984 (which led to the resignation of then-chief Avraham Shalom, the most evasive of the interviewees); the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and the rise of Israeli religious extremists; the elaborately choreographed killing of Hamas bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash.

The former Shin Bet heads come off as engaging personalities, but Moreh wisely maintains a safe distance and tight focus; we learn nothing of their personal lives and never see them outside the interview frame. The point of “The Gatekeepers” is not to be awed or inspired by these men and their varying degrees of effectiveness and professionalism as top spies, but rather to listen closely to their chilling accounts and often startling insights.

The slow-dawning revelation of the film is that the Israelis who know the mechanics of Palestinian terrorism on Israeli soil most intimately have deep and gnawing misgivings, both strategic and ethical, over the way Israel conducts itself. As Ami Ayalon, head of the agency from 1996 to 2000, says toward the end of the movie: “We're winning all the battles, and we’re losing the war”.

Such reflections push “The Gatekeepers” toward something deeper and wider-reaching than a history of Israeli counterterrorism; the film becomes, in its final section, a more philosophical inquiry into what protecting one’s country means -- and the gains, losses, risks and limitations involved. In its thrust and implications, the film therefore echoes Kathryn Bigelow’s mournful CIA procedural (and Oscar contender) “Zero Dark Thirty”.

If “5 Broken Cameras” plays like a piercing cry of Palestinian discontent, “The Gatekeepers” is a call -- quieter, but in its way just as insistent -- for Israel to stop losing its head, and start searching its soul, as it strives to keep its citizens safe.

“5 Broken Cameras” (94 min.) will be released in France on February 20. “The Gatekeepers” (95 min.) will be shown on French-German channel Arte on March 5 and released on DVD on March 6.


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