Film Fest: 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers

5 Broken Cameras (2012) documents 5 years of protests against the separation wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in. The Gatekeepers (2012) interviews 6 of the 7 living directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police.


The view from The Gatekeepers.
What Palestine looks like to the Gatekeepers.

Gemma: These were tough and rich films to start with.

Rasha: I’m glad we to agreed to start with these. I think they make an interesting weight against each other. I watched them when I was curating a course on Palestine Liberation in 2013, and I saw them both in the same week. The differences where striking then, and even more so on a second viewing. Tell me what was tough and what was thick for you in these two films.

G: Well, in both cases they’re difficult to watch, the violence and resistance in 5 Broken Cameras and the moments of violence and total alienation from it in The Gatekeepers—though I was seeing 5BC for the second time, so I felt like I had more of a chance to think about its filmmaking this time around, whereas the first time I was just kind of experiencing the moments.

R: The year that both of these films were up for the Oscar for feature documentary, I saw 5BC first and at home for free on the internet. By the time I saw The Gatekeepers in a theatre (my only option, not free, an issue of structural power/accessibility that continued through this second viewing), I was hyperaware of the method of presenting the material. The first thing that struck me about GK then was the outrageously high levels of production quality, on top of the outrageous access to archival and military footage. I use the word “outrageous” in its original meaning here. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi did not have access to the same equipment or footage as Dror Moreh. Like, how many cameras were broken in the making of GK?

Not this many.
Not this many.

G: This is very true. But they also did not have the same intention in their use of footage. What I noticed most in comparing the filmmaking was Moreh’s relative absence from his film, and the strategic use of Burnat’s presence in his.

R: Say more about what those mean in your viewing of the films.

G: Well, Burnat makes really thoughtful use of his own journey and lets the film be his own journey, while Moreh’s obscuring himself and, it seems, trying to make the film The Journey of the Shin Bet, or the Journey of Contemporary Israel. (I’m assuming Moreh is male; I don’t actually know.)

R: He is.

R: 5BC is also the journey of his song Gibreel being born and growing up in the middle of violence; it’s the journey of a village in their continuing protests. Moreh’s timing with GK was very much about the Israeli election cycle.

G: Burnat does seem to be addressing an international audience (much more so than Moreh is), but there’s this really fascinating and intelligent rawness to his reveals. I’m thinking particularly of when he gets injured, how cleanly he offers us the full scale of that insane scenario—he has to pay for all of his care in the Israeli hospital because he’s not a citizen, has no way of counting on support from the PLO, and can’t do the work he’s depended on. We see so much so sharply both of him and through him.

R: The rawness isn’t necessarily of his choosing. This is perhaps diving deeper into detail, and on a tangent to your point: the accident in 5BC, when the truck Emad is driving crashes into the separation wall, had me wondering on a second view how and why it actually happened – distracted by filming? health problem? bad road? crashing into the wall on purpose as protest or in despair? I feel I have no right to ask, and that we’ll never know, but my emotion went with him way deeper than just what he’s showing, even when what he’s showing already feels huge.

Screenshot from 2015-05-20 11:09:14

G: I wondered about that too. I mean, it seemed significant that the PLO wouldn’t consider it a resistance accident, and he wanted us to know that. (And even if the rawness wasn’t of his own choosing per se, the ways he used it were.)

R: He definitely draws out the hypocrisy and posturing of the official leadership at the national and international level, most of whom are notably absent from his story of Bil’in. I’m curious, would you also consider any of Moreh’s reveals with the Shin Bet directors to be fascinating and intelligent?

G: See, Moreh to me felt like he was taking pains to obscure himself. (Maybe I wouldn’t have felt that as strongly if I hadn’t watched 5BC right after.) Moreh was fighting not to make his reveals connect to him, and the only times he made himself present was when the interview subject was refusing to reveal or admit something that he considered key to the narrative. Then he returned to assumed invisibility.

Screenshot from 2015-05-20 10:39:01

R: Well, Moreh’s choice to recede seems a choice of political tactic. Before I even went to see GK, I was sure that I wasn’t really the audience for this film, which seems squarely aimed at “domestic” policy in Israel—domestic policy insofar as one nation is unilaterally deciding policy that affects a people who are not citizens of that country and are occupied by it, while that policy affects the wider Southwest Asia/North Africa region and about 2 million Palestinians in diaspora. As such, it feels like the film is trying to draw on the hardline reputation of its interview subjects to give power to what Moreh intends to be very limited liberal/leftist aims—namely a critique of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which the U.N. has recognized as Palestinian territories for a possible Palestinian state. I would agree with you that the two films have different audiences.

G: Certainly I saw a lot of Israeli public narrative/hegemonic assumptions built into Moreh’s narrative, a great deal that remained unexplained because the audience was assumed to be Israeli and another great deal that went unexplained because Moreh wasn’t questioning it. He, and his interview subjects, primarily brought the discourse down to “this is an exchange of individual acts of violence.” “Terrorism” is opposed to “settlements,” with no real context or depth of meaning for either. The quote that I think was from Rabin, about continuing the peace process as if there is no terrorism and fighting terrorism as if there is no peace process, took on a similar resonance for me. Moreh and his narrators will trade what they define as bad for bad, good for good. There is no motivation, no larger dialogue or picture. Which leaves viewers with the hegemonic picture that Israelis are defending themselves, and Palestinians are just hateful.

This guy was "in Paris" when Rabin was shot.
This guy was “in Paris” when Rabin was shot.

R: Whew, is that the sense you got from that film?

G: It is one of the senses. I got a lot of conflicting senses. But I definitely read that as a subtextual thread. It is one of the stories I heard them telling beneath their stories. And yet, in spite of that, I found the end powerful.

R: I’ll agree that GK does nothing, zilch, nada to question the founding myth of Israel as “a people without a land for a land without a people.” There is definitely not even a hint of an approach to a possible brush with the notion that the founding of the state of Israel may itself have not been particularly lawful or ethical. It’s interesting to note that the film starts with the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. As we noted in our review of The Promise, we miss a lot by tuning into the story too late. Namely: why are the Palestinians so mad, and why hasn’t a “peace process” been really possible? Mostly, because there is no peace process.

Maybe this will give some clues.
Maybe this will give some clues.

G: Simultaneously history and ahistorical.

R: On watching GK the second time, and after having read EI’s review of Waltz with Bashir, I was struck by how not only are Palestinians obviously not speaking in this exclusive set of interviews with the heads of the Israeli secret police, but the only Palestinians that show up are in bloody archival footage and none of them gets the courtesy of being translated when they speak. It goes to a deeper problem in Israeli leftist movements: in a state that has so completely coded Palestinian identity as “terrorist”—one where 5BC has been internationally appropriated as an “Israeli” film even as it is being censored by the Israeli Education ministry—even weakly reformist Israelis can be prosecuted for working with Palestinian activists, and those Palestinian activists can end up in even more danger because of it. Really limits the kind of work that can be done openly or democratically.

G: What I thought it painted powerfully was the political disillusionment of its highly privileged and highly indoctrinated interview subjects. I forget which guy it was (I actually couldn’t track their names), but one of the Shin Bet heads offered the image of entering the halls of power and seeing that there was no secret door and “no one was thinking for me.” I found that tremendously resonant, and I was fascinated by the stories of dealing with radical right-wing Jewish extremists. There I go. Jewish Israeli extremists.

R: Tell me what struck you about the latter.

G: I was having a very hard time articulating it to myself, beyond the “IDF forces tried to BLOCK settlers in 1974? who knew?” moment. I still am. It remained in the narrative of exchanging individual acts of violence—”our bus attacks, their bus attacks”—but I was also observing in myself as a viewer. How I felt almost less compelled to try to understand—meaning be empathetic towards—the fanaticism of those who were supposedly “my people.” And so I was looking at the Shin Bet leaders through a similar lens, whether they were trying to understand the Jewish Underground, or to write them off as outliers who were screwing up the peace process, whether they genuinely felt that they were a significant threat.

R: How did you feel about the settlers who show up in 5BC?

G: Similarly, I suppose. They made me think that in the end, force is force—that once you, the powerful, have done it (build your settlements in Palestinian villages, or, say, open an extralegal prison in Guantanamo Bay), it’s done. But the settlers felt more faceless to me in 5BC, even though we actually saw their faces.

R: The person I was watching with surprised themself by yelling at the television.

G: At what point?

This one right here.
This one right here.

R: When a settler threatens to “break his bones” if Emad doesn’t stop filming. They didn’t feel faceless or unrecognizable to me. It felt very much akin to some American attitudes. Power-drunk police who break the arms of bystanders who are filming. Minutemen on the border of Texas. It felt like very visceral white privilege, very ugly, very raw.

G: Emad is trying to reveal, and the settlers are making efforts to obscure themselves, to be a monolithic inevitable force. And I guess to a degree I fell for that while watching.

R: Earlier, Emad films the protestors from Bil’in being beaten up for standing under the trailers that are being placed to annex land. Even the emergency services who show up to treat the Palestinians are telling him he can’t be filming this.

G: I was interested in Emad’s screenings for Bil’in, the notion that screening “allowed them a distance from what they had experienced.” And the relationship between that and the assertion that allowing his son Gibreel to see everything with his own eyes was what constituted protection. Bearing witness to your own life.

R: Yes, that’s in my notes—to me it’s huge that Emad’s audience, his first audiences, are always his family and his village. It speaks very deeply to me as an artist who believes art has a deep place in our relationships in community, in the fuel and energy we have to live our lives and choose who we want to be. Art is daily bread that feeds us.

We make art to hold each other and hold our own lives, and try to find the ways forward.
We make art to hold each other and hold our own lives, and try to find the ways forward.

R: I want to come back to something you said earlier about GK‘s powerful portrayal of the political disillusionment of highly privileged and highly indoctrinated military men. For me, the film obscures more than it reveals, though I think it’s a valuable historical document to have these interviews. The disillusionment of these military commanders is at realizing that their country isn’t actually making decisions that based on protecting its own population. The film almost comes out directly to say that, but what it doesn’t offer us is an explanation of what’s really driving these political and military decisions. I think the idea of a Radical Religious Right is deployed as just as much a red herring in the case of Israeli politics as it is in the American context—I think the truth is that there are much colder and more opportunistic political calculations going on that will use whatever social and cultural forces serve their ends.

Avraham Shalom, a man of deep irony in his choice of names, will drink with anyone to get the job done.
Avraham Shalom, a man of deep irony in his choice of names, admits he will drink with anyone to get the job done.

R: Notice how future prime minister Netanyahu is at the rightwing rallies that featured a coffin of Rabin. There are larger political and economic interests that benefit from rightwing zealotry and violence. The settlements serve as powerful tools to create a de facto annexation of the West Bank. They serve the agenda of expansionist politics. At the same time that that expansion is violence and creates more violence.

G: I don’t find the Radical Right notion a red herring, though I see what you’re saying. I find it one of several threads. Radicals, both those whose politics I predominantly share and those I don’t, exist in part to create a slippery slope, or to make a slope steeper. Which would link to the rest of your argument above, I think. I saw the film both obscuring and revealing at the same time, and much less self-aware about what it was revealing than was 5BC. The disillusionment of these spy leaders—and I would distinguish them from the IDF, as I would distinguish the CIA from US military command, in spite of the agendas that give both such agencies disturbing mission creep—seemed wide-ranging to me. Some of them were just realizing that the country wasn’t protecting its own population, some were starting to have ideas about why.

R: I’m going reel back in what I was just typing because I do want to stay focused on the films rather than just dipping into history that’s beyond them. That’s why we’re reviewing other films this month! Perhaps to close: two moments that were most striking for you from each film.

Screenshot from 2015-05-20 11:02:08

G: 5BC: the relationship to the camera in Phil’s death. This time around, on a second viewing, all I could think was “I couldn’t keep filming,” but I understood why Emad did.

R: Yeah. Whew. And he’s aware of it. He talks about the choice when they are arresting his third brother and his parents are leaping on the army vehicle.

Screenshot from 2015-05-20 11:10:36

G: Well, exactly. So we’re set up for it, and yet it still hit me.

R: Without much commentary: in GK, hearing Shin Bet leader refer to “the Palestinian problem” and hearing the echo in it of “the Jewish problem” or “the Negro problem.”

G: In GK I think I said it already: the notion that “no one was thinking for me” as a picture of the contradiction in a privileged man’s political disillusionment.

R: With the wish that someone *would* think for him in the midst of this mess?

G: Well, you want to lead, and you want someone else to be thinking for you, simultaneously. And you recognize that those who led before you might also have felt that way. No one is steering this ship. And so you must be.

R: That ship is going in too consistent a direction to believe that no one is steering. In 5BC: how strong the vaccuum of infrastructure is—Emad has a camera to record his son’s birth and so he becomes the village cameraman. And when the village protests, he becomes an activist documentarian.

G: That’s a really interesting frame. Slowly the role comes to guide him and, in a way, own him.

Screenshot from 2015-05-20 11:09:26

R: Dude, calling is a thing. It is in the world. From GK: The casual assumption of the rule of law. One Shin Bet head is expressing sore disappointment at the death of a Palestinian man who was being interrogated like: “Naw, y’all, we don’t just carry out extrajudicial executions of all the people we arbitrarily and illegally detain.”

G: Oh, yeah! I noticed that in the moment too, but neglected to write it down. Well said.

R: It reads as the illusion of the rule of law. Dude, even their most critical lens of deep disillusionment cannot fracture or pop the top off that War on Terror narrative.

G: I don’t know that anybody was trying to.

Screenshot from 2015-05-20 10:35:25

R: They were not, and I noticed. I’ve got one more for 5BC: The settler who’s on his phone saying “get the furniture and hang the mezuzah to establish ownership.” That ish is like the WILD WEST out there. And the Catch-22-level insanity of laws that prohibit development but legally recognize it once religious rituals have been done. That does not sound like a democratic state to me.

G: I feel democratic states are inherently secular.

R: Dude, I don’t think that’s just a feeling you have. It really ought not to be.

G: My only other one from GK that I haven’t mentioned already is the consistent practice, in the film, of opposing “Jews” and “Palestinians” rather than “Israelis” and “Palestinians.” As if one cannot be both Palestinian and Jewish, and as if it’s that contrast that is meant to define one as a Jew.

R: All the Mizrahis are clapping for that one. Yeah, that casual eliding speaks volumes about, well, racism.

G: Yep. And nationalism, and the relationship between the two. Can I do a slightly sillier one for 5BC? He managed to sing “Happy Birthday” in a film without a copyright infringement suit. You actually can’t do that in the US.

R: I think we may have found the one advantage of being a stateless Palestinian. All Palestinians should take advantage of this. Maybe the copyleft movement can relaunch its campaign against Disney’s cultural annexation from the West Bank?

G: Sounds like a plan.

R: It is probably a terrible plan. I don’t know that I can recommend it, but I do have an appreciation for diagonal moves.

Screenshot from 2015-05-20 11:09:54