25 February 2013

The good news from the Oscars – we lost

By David Guy @5MFI

When forced to watch the Oscars telecast or reading in guilty pleasure the list of ‘winners’ the next morning I always keep my fingers crossed for any Israeli product. Not this time.

Neither 5 Broken Cameras nor The Gatekeepers  took the prize for best documentary feature. For probably the first time in my life an ‘Israeli’ film was up for a prize and I wasn’t cheering. Actually for the first time any Israel effort was up for any prize in any field and I hoped it would lose.

As a general rule award shows leave me cold. It’s not simply the Oscars. All of the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, AFI or the Ophirs† and their multiple equivalents leave me desperately grabbing for my remote.  I don’t know if it is the uncomfortable rows of stars sitting in tuxedos and dresses that they couldn’t wear without embarrassment at a wedding in Dimona or their best and fakest Hollywood smiles when someone else takes a prize that could stop their clunker tanking at the Box Office.  Perhaps its the awful jokes and performances straight out of this year’s Festigal‡. Maybe it’s the awful record of ‘winners’ failing to withstand the test of time?

Why am I glad?

Please note this is not a film review.  The quality of the art should be irrelevant when the result is propaganda, as in these two. Indeed, watching either film is not absolutely necessary – all three directors have been quite clear about their intentions in numerous interviews. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite director was a genius pioneer in documentary film. In the same spirit, I would still oppose her receiving an excellence award, even posthumously.

Israel is in a long-time war. Some of it takes place with bullets, tanks and rockets (I’m too old for that). Some of it takes place among diplomats (too late to even attempt that) and a great amount takes place in attempting to move public perception (That’s where Five Minutes for Israel comes in). Who supplies a declared enemy with weapons? Subsidising a doco that you know will be used against you is like supplying your enemy with bullets.

Isn’t this a freedom of expression issue?

Israel has always been justly proud of her free press and tolerance of dissenting opinion. That is something none of her enemies can claim. There are no young men sitting in gaol for a satirical caption to a Facebook photograph of the President, as Anas Said Awad sits in Nablus. If there was, all of Eretz Nehederet and LATMA cast and production team would be cooling their heels in Ayalon Prison. Further, there is definitely no one  there for blasphemy and contempt of religion. Shenken St., Tel Aviv and a good proportion of the Knesset would likewise be empty.

That said, there’s a difference between tolerating unfairly critical comment and subsidising it.

You may have noticed that I described both films as ‘Israeli’ in inverted commas (single quotes if you’re a Yank) something I would normally reserve for Palestinian ‘refugees’. Israeli television and much of the also described them as local efforts. There certainly are grounds for labeling them an Israeli product. 5 Broken Cameras,  a joint Israeli/Palestinian production was initially funded by the Greenhouse Development Project (a Mediterranean development project initiated by an Israeli foundation and sponsored by Europeans), then by French and Dutch television, and finally enthusiastically by the Israeli television and the New Israel Fund. The anti Israel feelings of the Palestinian side didn’t extend to refusing Israeli money. Have they ever?

What worries me?

Can you imagine the  acceptance speech condemning or even lecturing Israel carried live to tens of millions of viewers? Then afterwards dominating the news all over the world? It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s Oscar acceptance speech used the podium as a bully pulpit  for a political agenda. In 1973 Sacheen Littlefeather introduced the technique when she politic-ed Indian Rights as a proxy for Marlon Brando.

Would it happen? Without a doubt. Although 5 Broken Cameras  would almost certainly be worse in this respect than the Gatekeepers, both were made for a distinct agenda – one to discredit Israel and the other to push it for her own good into a direction against the will of the elected government.

They couldn’t or wouldn’t restrain themselves and as far as I know the Oscars don’t use a hook. Actually it would be worse if they did. One of the strongest antisemitic canards is that the Jews control Hollywood and it wouldn’t just be a sarcastic adult/child teddy bear making that point, if somehow one of the directors was halted in his diatribe.

The second reason is the nature of the documentary art. Documentaries are not reality but they become reality in the audience’s mind. At present neither film has anything like mass circulation. The buffs have seen it but they have no influence. The Israel haters will pass clips from hand to hand but most people will give both films a miss – unless they win an Oscar.

Let’s not delude ourselves. It’s not the appreciation of their peers that matters. The jump in box-office is a prime reason why film people even turn up. I am so glad neither ‘Israeli’ documentary made that jump.

Read on:

† For the record: BAFTAs (UK), Golden Globes (US), AFI (Australia), Ophirs (Israel)
‡ Festigal (Hebrew: פסטיגל‎) is an annual Israeli singing show for audience of children and their parents during the Hanukkah vacation time. Initially designed as a song contest, its format was gradually expanded, with famous Israeli singers and actors taking part in it. Now the Festigal event is built around some theme or story.

About David Guy

B.A./B.C.A. (Communication and Media Arts) University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA M.A. in Government (Diplomacy and Conflict Studies) Inter Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, ISRAEL Twitter @5MFI
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