‘Forget About Morality’

Two Oscar-nominated documentaries present footage of Israel and Palestine you’ll never see on network TV.

Michael Atkinson

Emad Burnat with his five broken cameras. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

It may be that the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict has reached some kind of crit­i­cal mass of media expo­sure. Secrets are becom­ing impos­si­ble to keep, as atroc­i­ties are record­ed on cell phones and in civil­ian doc­u­men­taries made with noth­ing but a cheap cam­era and a bel­ly­ful of ire. Along­side Vibeke Løkkeberg’s 2012 Tears of Gaza, two Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed doc­u­men­taries—The Gate­keep­ers and 5 Bro­ken Cam­eras—etch a hair-rais­ing trip­tych of the dire state of affairs for Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank.

Here you get a rare glimpse of exactly what the interface between a West Bank resident and the Israeli army has been like.

Dror Moreh’s The Gate­keep­ers is an earnest attempt at biop­sy­ing the soul of Israel in the decades since 1967, by exam­in­ing the his­to­ry of the Shin Bet, Israel’s inter­nal secu­ri­ty agency respon­si­ble for deal­ing with the Pales­tini­ans, the PLO, Hamas and domes­tic ter­ror­ists. Noto­ri­ous­ly secre­tive, the Shin Bet shields the iden­ti­ty of all of its mem­bers, save for its direc­tors, six of whom Moreh has assem­bled here in their retire­ments, from the decep­tive­ly cud­dly grand­pa Avra­ham Shalom (198186) to the inci­sive Avi Dichter (200005). One by one, the direc­tors recount the his­to­ry of the orga­ni­za­tion in a cloud of doubt and rue, freely acknowl­edg­ing the moral gray areas in which they worked, where pris­on­ers died in cus­tody and house bomb­ings killed inno­cents. Appar­ent­ly, the inter­ro­ga­tions rou­tine­ly car­ried out have been, for decades, Abu Ghraib-worthy.

The his­to­ry is fas­ci­nat­ing enough to over­come the film’s intru­sive dig­i­tal tran­si­tions. And clear­ly, Moreh’s inten­tions are sol­id, as when he con­fronts Shalom about the 1984 Kav 300” inci­dent, in which two bus hijack­ers were sum­mar­i­ly exe­cut­ed by the Shin Bet, and Shalom resigned after being accused of cov­er­ing it up (which he still denies). For­get about moral­i­ty,” Shalom grum­bles. But while Moreh shows us news footage of bloody bus bomb­ings, we see noth­ing of the Israeli assaults on Pales­tini­ans. Since these were actions tak­en by the Army, not the Shin Bet, they’re not on Moreh’s docket.

He’s bought his sub­jects’ basic premise, of course — the movie sees the occu­pa­tion of the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries, and the height­ened state of mil­i­tary vio­lence it entails, as mere­ly frus­trat­ing and unten­able for Israelis. It is not a moral cri­sis, an abuse of pow­er, in and of itself. This is an under­stand­able posi­tion com­ing from these sat­is­fied old sol­diers, but Moreh should’ve tak­en a les­son from, say, Claude Lanz­mann, who wouldn’t have let a bunch of old Six Day War desert fox­es con­trol his nar­ra­tive. It’s telling that Moreh claims inspi­ra­tion from Errol Mor­ris’ The Fog of War, which let U.S. Defense Sec­re­tary Robert McNa­ma­ra off the hook for the geno­ci­dal esca­la­tions in South­east Asia.

The oth­er shoe drops with Emad Bur­nat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Bro­ken Cam­eras, a per­son­al account by Bur­nat, who was a Pales­tin­ian res­i­dent of olive-farm­ing, set­tle­ment-encroached Bil’in on the West Bank when he start­ed video­tap­ing his fourth son as a baby in 2005. A sep­a­ra­tion wall was being built, and Bur­nat began tap­ing his village’s fear­less protests, which are rou­tine­ly sup­pressed by Israeli troops with gas grenades and open gun­fire. As the title sug­gests, Bur­nat goes through five cam­eras film­ing on the front­line between Pales­tini­ans wield­ing ban­ners and throw­ing rocks, and Israeli sol­diers who think noth­ing of shoot­ing chil­dren, destroy­ing homes and — as caught on tape — hold­ing down a pro­test­er and unload­ing a rifle round into his leg.

Here you get a rare glimpse of exact­ly what the inter­face between a West Bank res­i­dent and the Israeli army has been like — that is, a free-for-all, where Pales­tini­ans are regard­ed as lit­tle more than scrub growth to be shunt­ed aside for the sake of the rel­a­tive­ly wealthy Jews hap­pi­ly mov­ing into their new set­tle­ment con­dos. Hon­est­ly, the burn­ing of Bil’in’s olive trees at night, which the set­tlers rou­tine­ly do, is bald evi­dence of malfea­sance and injus­tice that no cant about secu­ri­ty” can mitigate.

In five years of film­ing, we see Bil’in go from a green, hilly vil­lage to a bull­dozed con­struc­tion site, and Bur­nat finds him­self in harm’s way scores of times. (At least three of his cam­eras are sniper-shot off his shoul­der.) 5 Bro­ken Cam­eras is even-tem­pered because Bur­nat is, seem­ing­ly. And so the Holy Shit” feel­ings of out­rage are all ours, ignit­ed by first­hand footage you’ll nev­er see on net­work TV or described on the New York Times edi­to­r­i­al page.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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