/ 15 January 2013

Is Oscar-nominated ‘5 Broken Cameras’ an Israeli or Palestinian film?

Poster for '5 Broken Cameras'.
Poster for '5 Broken Cameras'.

The film 5 Broken Cameras has been nominated for a Oscar in the best feature-length documentary category, it was announced last week. I reviewed the feature, the product of years’ worth of footage of demonstrations shot by Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat, for The Electronic Intifada back in October.

As a film, 5 Broken Cameras works on both an artistic and a political level. It’s a deeply personal film to Burnat in many ways, while also being a chronicle of the struggle of his village, Bilin, against Israel’s apartheid wall and policies of dispossession.

In a press release from the production company, Burnat responded to the news: “This is one of the happiest moments of my life. The village of Bilin is celebrating because of international support of my film. As a child I remember watching the Oscars on TV … I don’t recall seeing films about Palestine, the occupation or our struggles. Times have changed.”

Israeli appropriation
But despite being a deeply Palestinian story about a collective Palestinian struggle, told by a Palestinian, the Israeli press almost immediately began referring to it as an “Israeli film,” along with some US media, and boasting of it almost as a national product.

Even the Israeli embassy in Washington tweeted out a headline from The Forward claiming Burnat’s effort as an “Israeli film”:

But Burnat today denied this. On his Facebook page, after being alerted as to how the Israeli press is describing it, Burnat said it was actually a “Palestinian film … My story, my village story, my people’s story, seven years I was working on the film.”

Guy Davidi, the film’s other director, said in a statement released on his Facebook page that “it’s first and foremost also a Palestinian film,” as well as an Israeli film. In the statement (which you can read in full below), Davidi reflects on some of the complexities surrounding the film – which did receive some Israeli funding. (Davidi has also told me that a report about him and the film by Israel National News was totally invented, and they had not even spoken to him.)

Expanding on this point Davidi told me in an online chat: “the film is considered a Palestinian-Israeli-French production since there is finance from these countries and I’m Israeli, Emad is Palestinian, personally I don’t think films should have citizenships".

In some ways, this debate recalls the Academy’s spurning of Elia Suieiman’s Divine Intervention over a decade ago, on spurious grounds. But this time with a different result.

As far as the Oscars go, however, the two cases are different, because 5 Broken Cameras has been nominated in the documentary feature category, not the foreign language category. In the latter, in-country committees formally nominate films on behalf of the country. So in this case, that issue does not arise in a formal sense – unlike the issues around funding, talent and “nationality” (if films even have one).

The fact of Israeli funding may, for some, raise of the specter of boycotting this Palestinian film. Indeed, last year celebrity academic Norman Finkelstein once again attacked the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for “flagrant hypocrisy” for not calling for a boycott of 5 Broken Cameras.

But this is just another sign of Finkelstein’s sad degeneration, with more frequent attacks on the solidarity movement in recent years, including slandering the BDS movement as a “cult.”

In fact, the movement has strict, detailed and specific criteria for applying the cultural boycott, and 5 Broken Cameras does not meet them. According to the official cultural boycott guidelines published by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI):

"Individual cultural products that receive [Israeli] state funding as part of the individual cultural worker’s entitlement as a tax-paying citizen, without her/him being bound to serve the state’s political and PR interests, are not boycottable."

Before I wrote my review of the film, I wrote to PACBI and the Palestinian BDS National Committee to confirm my reading of the guidelines that this applied to 5 Broken Cameras. Both confirmed it was the case, and that the film is not boycottable as part of the BDS movement.

Activists in Arab countries may, however, apply a stricter standard than this as part of anti-normalisation campaigns.

But PACBI cautioned that certain showings of the film “could be boycottable if it is sponsored by any brand Israel-type funding,” citing the film’s screening at the Canadian Hotdocs festival last year, which had received money from the Israeli consulate.

Davidi responded that Hotdocs had made a request for this funding without his knowledge. “The festival got sponsorship, not us. The whole thing happened without us knowing so I found that only after the showing,” he explained.

The festival indeed appears to have hushed up this funding, as it does not appear on its website sponsors page, nor on copies the page made at the time.

Guy Davidi’s full statement
I wanted to write a few words for this very complex day. When a film succeeds, you’re supposed to sit back and enjoy, but when a film like 5 Broken Cameras succeeds, a whole box of complex challenges opens up. Every side immediately has its interpretation of the filmmakers or the film. Some are Israelis who immediately appropriate the film for national pride or pride over the national arts, but obscure or completely omit the fact that it’s first and foremost also a Palestinian film. Not that a film should have a citizenship at all. On the other hand, there are also activists who are in turn offended by this appropriation and expect harsh statements in response; the kind of statements that would obliterate the possibility of having the film connect with a slightly broader audience. There are dear Israelis, some of them also inside the establishment itself, who supported and lifted up the film, such as the New Fund for Cinema and Television, who were the most incredible and supportive partners for the making of the film, and who are facing an established system that is threatening their existence and independence. And there are the Palestinians and the Arab world, for whom this detail makes it difficult to accept the film, and the film can’t even be screened there because of that.

There is a nonviolent struggle that faces challenges not only from the Israeli occupation but also from within, and the portrayal of partnership with Israelis is a complex challenge, and a Palestinian director may find himself under attack for that. And then there are journalists and headline editors who are looking for half a sentence, a quarter of a sentence that they can wave around, and situate the left wing director in a provocative and nonthreatening space, and the Palestinian director in a nationalistic and nonthreatening space. And then there will be lots of talk-backs for a short while, and the whole matter will be forgotten and the audience will be happy that there is nothing new under the sun and they can continue their lives without disturbance or worry. And in that place, any achievement that was reached is crushed. This is a day with joy and sadness. Joy – it’s clear why, but sadness – about the ability of a delicate and complicated conversation to come out.

This article first appeared on the Electronic Intifada.