A major event for any filmmaker, the Oscar’s represent an amazing and unexpected pinnacle for Palestinian director, Emad Burnat. His documentary, 5 Broken Cameras, has been nominated in the Best Documentary category in the 2013 Academy Awards, which will be presented this coming Sunday, February 24th, at the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater in Hollywood, California. He is the first Palestinian to ever be nominated.
With the date quickly approaching, Burnat, his wife and 8-year-old son, Gibreel, left Turkey for Los Angeles, arriving Tuesday, February 19th. That’s when things got problematic.
As the Burnat family disembarked at LAX, U.S. immigration officials immediately detained them, taking Burnat to a private area for questioning, while escorting his wife and son to a “holding area.” At issue was Burnat’s “reason for your visit.” When he told security officials he was there as an Oscar nominee… they didn’t believe him. From The Huffington Post:
“It was strange for me last night when I arrived at the airport in Los Angeles, because I came to the United States this year six times. This is the first time that’s happened to me,” Burnat told HuffPost Live host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. “They started asking me questions and taking pictures. They were asking me for documents and invitations. I told them I had the hotel reservation, I am the Oscar nominee and I came here for this purpose. I had the invitation in my iPhone and I had all documents on my iPhone. They told me, ‘We don’t care, we need more documents, we need papers, and if you don’t give us documents we will send you back home.’”
Burnat, the first Palestinian to ever receive an Oscar nomination, said he was accustomed to such treatment, but that doesn’t make it right.
“All the Palestinians get the same treatment in our country, in our home and in different countries,” Burnat said. “So it’s not normal for a human to be treated like this for all our lives, or for our kids. So I am seeking for peace and for freedom for my kids. And I want them to be treated like humans, not because we are Palestinians that we should get bad treatment or different treatment.”
Without his invitation in hand and, well, being a Palestinian, Burnat was obligated to come up with some way to prove his Oscar bona fides. He got in touch with friend and filmmaker, Michael Moore, as well as his publicist, Julia Pacetti, hoping to get a hard copy of his invitation. Moore was incensed by his friend’s treatment and took to Twitter (story continues after tweets):
Fortunately for everyone involved, neither Moore nor anyone else had to intervene beyond the exchanged phone calls. Ultimately authorities at U.S. Customs and Border Protection released the family without comment, claiming they are prohibited from discussing the case with the media. They did, however, offer a brief official response as reported by CNN Entertainment:
In a statement, the agency said it strives to treat travelers with respect. “Travelers may be referred for further inspection for a variety of reasons to include identity verification, intent of travel, and confirmation of admissibility,” it said.
Moore and others were not assuaged. Hopefully this less-than-welcoming committee will not have detracted too much from the celebratory weekend ahead.
The story of Burnat and his film, 5 Broken Cameras, has been one of the most compelling of the Oscar season. Living in the West Bank with its never-ending turmoil has informed much of Burnat’s view of the world but, strangely, the filming of 5 Broken Cameras didn’t begin as a statement of activism or protest. Instead, it began as a father purchasing a camera to document his newly born son’s life. But as political events in his home became more roiled, as the protests and acts of violence between Jews and Palestinians fighting over the encroaching Jewish settlements and the barriers erected on Palestinian land, Burnat’s camera began to train on the unfolding and burgeoning eruptions. From NPR:
The Academy Award-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras tells the story of Bil’in, a modest Palestinian village perilously close to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
After the Israeli government began putting up its West Bank separation barrier, Bil’in resident Emad Burnat picked up a video camera, and in 2005 began a multiyear documentary project.
The soft-spoken Burnat narrates the story, seen through the lens of a camera he originally got to document his youngest son’s childhood. As the protest movement against the barrier grows, the film project consumes Burnat as he documents years of resistance. Bil’in residents say it cuts them off from farm land they need to cultivate.
After filming for several years, Burnat contacted Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, who helped Burnat put the film together. They are listed as co-directors.
During the course of filming, dangerous encounters became a regular part of the process. The title of the film comes from the number of cameras Burnat lost during the years of shooting: some smashed by Israeli soldiers, some destroyed by tear gas, one even shattered by bullets. In a radio interview with NPR, Burnat spoke of that one camera he cherishes as a particular memento:
“So the two bullets hit the camera, and one of these bullets is still inside this camera,” he says. “So I feel that this camera saved my life.”
While passionate about his purpose and that of his film, the notoriety and fame has raises Burnat’s profile in ways that have left him and his family vulnerable in what is a very fractious and incendiary region. His most dramatic clash happened when he and two of his children were traveling to a contested area to shoot. In an interview last May with Film Society Lincoln Center, he spoke of his near-fatal accident:
Would you tell us about your accident, where your truck crashed?
It was a tractor, not a truck. We used to go to the land, to cross the gate and go to the land with the farmers. Because the farms are near the settlements. I used to film there and help the farmers. The road [used to be] straight but the soldiers changed it to make the wall. So they changed it and we had to go up the hill and then down. So on the way back when we passed the gate, the tractor lost control and hit the fence. Yes, I was on the tractor with other people and with two of my children.
Were they OK?
Gibreel was lightly injured and the other one, nothing happened. But the badly injured [one] was me.
I don’t know what happened, because it was very fast. Because it was steep, and the tractor lost control and then the tractor hit the fence, and I remember nothing after.
We see you on the ground afterwards, looking dazed.
Yeah, looking around, but I knew nothing. I was for two months in the hospital.
Are you all better now, or you still have to be careful?
I still have to be careful, but I’m OK.
His film in unequivocally one-sided, showing his view of the abuses endured by Palestinians in their fight to hold onto what they consider their homeland. With the opposing side committed to countering his version of events, the pushback has been fierce, making life anything but simple for the emerging filmmaker and activist. Which makes the success of the film all the more appreciated, particularly after winning a slew of awards in 2012:
“The film was premiered and won two prizes at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam), Special Jury Award and the Audience Award. Then it was selected to the Sundance Film Festival, where we won the directing prize. After IDFA we went to Stockholm and Prague and the film won important awards. And now, I’m just coming back from the Netherlands, the Hague. And I got the news yesterday that the film won a prize in Oslo. So, it is winning a lot of awards.”
As for the Oscar, it is the sort of professional nod that vaults any filmmaker into a stratosphere few experience. Both Burnat and his partner, Guy Davidi, are aware of the global impact of their nomination.
Aware of the difficult struggles ahead, Davidi knows how valuable global attention at the Oscars can be. He’s now launching a campaign to get 5 Broken Cameras screened on primetime Israeli television and in all Israeli schools. “Everyone should watch the things we do,” he says. “They can think what they want about it, but at least they can’t be in denial.” Davidi is particularly insistent about wanting to show the film to younger generations. “My target audience was not necessarily adults or the Academy,” he says. “It’s Israeli youth, kids who should go to military service knowing what they’re doing.”
5 Broken Cameras isn’t the only documentary from this part of the world nominated for a 2013 Oscar. The Gatekeepers is a candid look at Israel’s security policies through interviews with six former chiefs of the secretive Shin Bet. But Davidi resists applauding the success of two critically acclaimed “Israeli“ films and is uncomfortable with the symbolic weight some have placed on his collaboration with his Palestinian colleague. “The film isn’t representing a country,” he says. “And at the end of the day, we’re just two human beings.” Would he celebrate if he wins the Oscar? “An Oscar with no peace,” says Davidi, “doesn’t mean very much.” [Source: Time Magazine]
But for now, for this moment, it’s time, perhaps, for some to celebrate. After a bumpy start, the creative community is ready to welcome Emad Burnat and his family with more pomp and enthusiasm than U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The buzz on the film is high and, if nothing else, Burnat his his biggest fan in his corner:
Moore told THR: “[5 Broken Cameras] isn’t just one of the best documentaries of the year, it’s one of the best movies of this year. I’d put it on the same level as any of the other great fiction films made this year.”
On Sunday, Oscar voters will let him know if they agree.