By the time Emad Burnat arrived at the reception for Oscar nominated documentary filmmakers, he’d been more than 24 hours on the road. His journey started off at him home village of Bilin in the West Bank, took him through roadblocks on the way to Jericho, hours of waiting at the border crossing to Jordan and from there a long flight to Los Angeles.
Burnat, who with Guy Davidi created ‘5 Broken Cameras,’ a documentary about life in a village next to the Israeli separation wall, is used to questioning and delays when travelling. But he did not expect another ordeal when entering the United States.
The filmmaker, on his way to attend the Oscar ceremony, was taken aside and questioned by immigration officers, who would not allow him to enter the United States without proving he was indeed an Oscar nominee. It took text messages to Michael Moore, who called top officials at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and friends at the State Department, to allow Burnat in.
“In other countries they have government representatives wait for the filmmakers at the airport with flowers,” Moore told reporters Wednesday night, “what are we afraid of?”
Burnat, however, did not allow the incident to dampen his enthusiasm.
“It was important for me to get here,” he said, “because this is the first Palestinian film that is nominated for an Oscar.” And if ‘5 Broken Cameras’ wins, Burnat said that would be “a historic day for the Palestinian people. We don’t have a state, but it will be a historic day.”
The question of whether Burnat and Davidi’s film is Israeli or Palestinian remains open, and its producers seem tired of discussing the issue.
Davidi, a Jewish Israeli who joined forces with Burnat’s attempt to document life under occupation, said he was taken aback by the criticism against the film in Israel.
“People should be happy that we opened a positive discussion on the issue of the occupation, but instead they are depicting us as enemies of the country,” he said.
His message, even when voiced in Hollywood standing next to glittery human-size Oscar statues, is not easy for Israeli ears. Davidi, speaking before a reception hosted by the Academy, expressed his hope that the international community use an “iron fist” against Israel in order to force it to end the conflict.
“I am saying it from a place of love,” he said. “But from my point of view it can even include boycotting Israel.”
No wonder that Israeli officials were nowhere to be found around the delegation of documentary producers that descended on Los Angeles.
In previous years, when Israeli films were nominated in the foreign language movie category, Israel’s consulate general organized receptions and Oscar viewing parties. Now there is no contact with the makers of 5 Broken Cameras.
While creators of 5 Broken Cameras were quick to declare they did not come to the Oscars to represent Israel, producers of the other movie from Israel nominated for best documentary film argue their film is as Israeli as it gets.
“It is an Israeli movie, in which six former heads of Israel’s security service talk about the problem of Israelis and Palestinians. It is an Israeli movie whether you like it or not,” said Dror Moreh, director of The Gatekeepers.
The movie is based on interviews with Israel’s former chiefs of the Shin Bet, all stating the need to end the occupation for the sake of Israel’s future. “Even though the prime minister’s spokesman said the prime minister does not want to watch the movie, I hope the public in Israel chooses to go and see it,” Moreh added.
The Israeli consulate hosted an event for the makers of The Gatekeepers.
And while the two movies’ clear message calling for a change in Israeli policy faced difficulties at home, Hollywood was much more welcoming.
Veteran documentary director Michael Moore who hosted a panel discussion with all nominees in the documentary category on Wednesday, was full of praise for the Israeli movies, which he viewed as courageous.
After rescuing Burnat from the arms of immigration officers, Moore told reporters that Americans don’t get to see in their evening news stories like the one of Bilin and life under occupation.
“Most Americans support Israel, that’s why it is so difficult,“ he said. “If there are any people of conscience, it’s the Israelis.”
Ever the jokester, Moore said that when he visited Israel he could hardly tell the difference between Israelis and Palestinians.
“OK, one says hummus and one says Hamas,” he quipped, “I can’t tell who’s Arab and who’s Israeli, it seems everybody’s a cousin. So stop it!”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.