Does Israel Really 'Own' Its Oscar Contenders?

Israel is more than happy to bask in the glory of Oscar-contending films made by Israelis. But we also need to share the responsibility for the stories those films tell.

My sister, a screenwriter by profession, tells me that the most difficult part of making a film is not the casting, shooting, editing or scoring, but rather sorting out the production credits: Who gets to have their name spool down the screen at the end. It’s a matter of ownership, one that becomes a particularly prickly matter during award season. Figuring out whether one’s contribution adds up to a screen credit can make the difference between climbing the podium to make a tearful acceptance speech or watching at home in pyjamas with home-made popcorn

Thankfully, we're not troubled by such technicalities in Israel. No matter how tenuous the link, any film connected to the motherland that makes it big belongs to us all. It’s hard to say whether this acquisitive instinct springs from patriotism, pride or good old fashioned parochialism. Maybe it doesn't matter. The Israeli contribution to the international film-making community reflects the creative energy and imagination found on our shores and is worth celebrating.

That aside: We like our winners, and we’ll own them when we see them. So the gritty urban film exploring the complications of marginalized lives? That’s ours. The intelligent drama parsing father-son rivalries set amidst the failings of academia? That's ours, too. The ballerina tortured by self-doubt and a domineering mother? We’ll take that one as well, thank you very much. (Yes, I know that Natalie Portman left Israel as a toddler, but she’s still ours. I mean, she named her kid Aleph, what more do you want?) As for the poignant social documentary exploring the deleterious impact of occupation on our Palestinian neighbors, co-directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli? Umm...

The latter is an interesting case study in the real meaning of ownership, Israeli style. "5 Broken Cameras," nominated for Best Documentary at next month’s Academy Awards, is an eloquent, elegiac meditation on the impact of the separation barrier on Palestinian communities, played out against the backdrop of the weekly demonstrations in the village of Bil’in. Co-directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, its initial success on the international film festival circuit scarcely registered on the Israeli radar, beyond those with a “niche” interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. But since its nomination for The Big One, it has been welcomed home with open arms.

It's easy to be cynical about these things, of course. After all, it’s always nice to champion an Israeli film on the world stage and since that nice Mr. Joseph Cedar  has unaccountably neglected to make a film this year, one must make do with what is available. But this is unfair, at least to a point. Davidi’s longstanding social and political activism is not entirely atypical; more to the point, the film was supported by the New Fund for Cinema and Television, funded by Israeli taxpayers to “encourage independent creators of cinema and television...from all parts of Israel.” So it would not be incorrect to describe "5 Broken Cameras" as an Israeli film.

Why does this matter? Because at its core, the issue of ownership suggests that we still have the capacity for reflection and self-criticism in these parts. At a time when the country stands increasingly accused of monolithic resistance to expressions of dissent and to the plurality of voices and opinions, this is important. But it is not enough.

Let’s scroll back a couple of years, to 2011. At that year’s Academy Awards, a modest little film called "Strangers No More" won an Oscar for Best Short Documentary. You might remember the film, which profiled the Rogozin-Bialik School in south Tel Aviv and its diverse population of students from 48 different countries. The film followed three children in particular from migrant backgrounds and their struggle to adapt to an alien landscape.

Touching and optimistic, the film was lauded as an example of hope and tolerance. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai proposed that “in a world of cynicism, alienation and hatred, this movie proves in the most direct and convincing way that there is the chance for a better world.” President Shimon Peres praised the film for highlighting Israel’s humanity. Israel, I think it is fair to say, took full ownership of the film. Not because it was made with Israeli money or expertise – it wasn’t – but because it portrayed a face of the country that was all too often overlooked by the wider world.

But a week is a long time in politics, as they say; two years is more or less an eternity. The bright and hopeful faces of the children of Rogozin-Bialik have long since faded from the public consciousness, replaced by the politics of fear. There is little point in dwelling on the exclusionary rhetoric that has dominated the current election campaign; suffice it to say that if "Strangers No More" were up for an Oscar next month, it would probably be seen as an embarrassment all around.

And that’s where the problems about the ownership of "5 Broken Cameras" lie. It will never be enough to claim ownership of a film because the filmmaker – one of two filmmakers, to be precise – happens to be Israeli, or because the film was made with Israeli money, or because it demonstrates the freedom of expression that (still) exists in the Only Democracy In The Middle East (tm). When all is said and done, it comes down to one simple precept: Taking ownership of the story that is being told, with all the responsibilities that this entails. And this, sadly, probably will not be the case with "5 Broken Cameras."

Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from the United Kingdom in 2007.