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Eight films to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

“I know they may knock at my door at any moment, but I’ll just keep filming. It helps me confront life. And survive.”

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With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominating the headlines, following the launch of a large-scale attack from Palestinian militant groups led by Hamas against Israel from the Gaza Strip, Euronews Culture revisits films that highlight the tension between the two and which aim to help audiences understand the history. 

A daunting task, as the conflict has gone on for so long and any conversation or cinematic portrayal of the matter invariably leads to angry tirades.

However, as the late Roger Ebert once said, movies are “like a machine that generates empathy”. So, while at no point do we believe this list to be exhaustive, these recent films – aside from their artistic value – are a great place to start in helping to understand different perspectives and educate audiences on what is going on in the Middle East. And at best, they too generate empathy.

We proceed chronologically.

Paradise Now (2005)

Paradise Now is a psychological drama which follows two Palestinian men, Said and Khaled, preparing for a suicide attack in Israel. They are not religious or political, and are never portrayed as fanatics. They are two friends living out their last days together. When they are separated near the Israeli border, their plot is uncovered, which leads them to question their decisions. 

Directed by Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, the film is a rare glimpse of the POV of the suicide bomber, and it deals with the topic in a nuanced, suspenseful, and often touching manner. It’s not an easy watch but instead of passing moral judgement, it allows the audience to challenge their preconceived ideas, to grapple with a reality, and provides enough context to let a voice shine – that of Palestinians criticising the use of violence. 

The film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and became the first Palestinian film to be nominated for the Oscars. This led to protests and several groups asking the Academy to disqualify the film, deeming that it encouraged killing civilians in terror acts. The film in no way does this, and in Hany Abu-Assad’s Golden Globe acceptance speech, he said he hoped the award was “a recognition that the Palestinians deserve their liberty and equality unconditionally.” Additionally, the film’s Israeli-Jewish producer Amir Harel stated: “If the movie raises awareness or presents a different side of reality, this is an important thing.” 

Abu-Assad also directed the stunning film Omar, about a Palestinian baker who climbs the West Bank barrier to visit the woman he intends to marry. It’s a romance that turns into a bracing crime drama that is also well worth your time.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

This animated war docudrama written and directed by Ari Folman depicts Folman’s search for repressed memories of his experience as a soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War. In this search for memories and meaning, the film explores the futility of wars and a statement about the trauma of conflict. 

The innovative approach to the subject matter through artist David Polonsky’s animation makes Waltz with Bashir an incredibly compelling watch, one whose form almost seems contradictory. However, this animated documentary defies convention and is a vibrant, at times dreamlike, anti-war film. 

There was some criticism at the time that the film anchored itself in what some refer to as the Israeli “shooting and crying” tradition – something which Folman disputed. This did not stop Waltz with Bashir from winning the Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and from becoming the first animated film to receive a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Also of note is Max Ritcher’s mesmerizing score, which won the composer the Best Composer award at the European Film Awards.

Lemon Tree (2008)

Salma, a widow from a Palestinian village, lives off her lemon grove. It is her only source of income. When Israeli Defence Minister Navon moves next to her, in a swish home sharing a boundary with her property on the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories of the West Bank, his security detail demands that the grove be torn down, as the trees could hide terrorists. Salma refuses to bow down, and engages a lawyer to take her case to the Supreme Court, which brings international attention. 

Directed by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis, Lemon Tree is a gripping story that doubles up as a beautiful parable retelling the Old Testament story of the King of Israel who covets his neighbour’s vineyard. Impressively, no sides are picked – the Israelis are arrogant, and the Palestinians stubborn. At the heart of Lemon Tree is a very human story that exposes the divisions between both people. It may not have the same impact as Waltz with Bashir – also released the same year – but it’s a simple fable that works chiefly due to a towering performance by the always-wonderful Hiam Abbass.

5 Broken Cameras (2011)

This must-see documentary from Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi is an intimate chronicle of non-violent resistance to the actions of the Israeli army. Over a five-year period, Burnat records the chaotic scenes taking place outside his house on the family video camera. The amateur documentarian offers a personal look at life in Bil’in, the West Bank township where he and his family live and which is threatened by encroaching Israeli settlements. Realising that his camera is a tool for empowerment, Burnat comes to the realisation that it is also a means to unite his community. 

“I film to heal,” he says. “I know they may knock at my door at any moment, but I’ll just keep filming. It helps me confront life. And survive.” 

5 Broken Cameras (named for the cameras that were smashed over the five year period) is a vital work of political and cinematic activism. More than that, it offers a first-hand testimony about a persecuted life and how one survives when dispossessed from the place you call home.

The Gatekeepers (2012)

Charged with overseeing Israel’s war on terror, the head of the Shin Bet – Israel’s secret service agency – is present at the crossroad of every decision made. For the first time ever, six former heads of the agency agreed to share their insights and reflect publicly on their actions. 

The Gatekeepers, directed by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, combines archival footage and computer animation alongside the in-depth interviews, all separated in seven segments which tackle the emerging role of the Shin Bet from the Six-Day War and the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Oslo Accords, Jewish terrorism, the Bus 300 affair (1984 incident in which Shin Bet members executed two Palestinian bus hijackers, immediately after the hostage crisis incident ended and they had been captured) and the assassination of Hamas militants. 

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The director was clearly inspired by Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War, and The Gatekeepers presents a brutally honest and masterfully edited perspective on the figures at the heart of wars. It’s an eye-opening history lesson told by those who orchestrated violent action. 

“Forget about morality,” one of them says, showing that this is not a film that will fill you with hope for the future. However, the articulate interviewees, another of whom compares the conduct of Israel in the West Bank to that of the Nazis towards the non-Jewish civilian population of occupied western Europe in WWII, does make you hope that, eventually, truth finds a way.

Foxtrot (2017)

Samuel Maoz (the director behind Lebanon) presented his incredibly powerful family tragedy at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize Silver Lion. It is a three-part story that starts with a moment of pure devastation: Soldiers arrive at the home of a middle-aged couple to tell them that their son has been killed in the line of duty. 

We then see the perspective of Israeli soldiers on border patrol in the desert, attempting to keep boredom at bay. After this borderline dreamlike middle part of a nightmarish triptych, the third segment goes back to the parents. 

The less said the better, as this film will shake you. It’s a puzzle whose pieces slowly fall into place, and the results are hard-hitting, and above all, riveting. Maoz comments on the universality of grief and injects his drama with a sense of righteous anger regarding the capacity for any country to send young people to die in the name of politics. 

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It’s an urgent and very witty film that got into hot water because it depicts the Israeli Defense Forces covering up the shooting of four Arab youths. It was denounced by Israel’s Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who referred to the film as “the result of self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative”. 

More a humanist plea against the futility of war.

Gaza Mon Amour (2020)

Palestine’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2022 Academy Awards, Gaza Mon Amour by Tarzan and Arab Nasser introduces us to Issa, a 60-year-old fisherman in Gaza who has never had the courage to tell Siham he’s in love with her. When he finds a sculpture of the Greek god Apollo in his fishing net, he believes his luck may have turned around. However, problems start to arise when the local authorities find out that he owns this statue in his house. 

Gaza Mon Amour is a slight film, much more than some others on this list; but it’s a very charming drama that never shies away from the troubling facets of life in Gaza. It doesn’t delve too much into the knotty sociopolitical territory, preferring a lighter romance above hard-hitting fare. However, it does take a look inside contemporary Palestine, and is buttressed to no end by Salim Daw and Hiam Abbass (her again), who manage to keep things believable while completely adhering to the film’s tone, which mixes some elements of absurd comedy and a few unexpectedly sprinkles of magic realism.

The Viewing Booth (2020)

The Viewing Booth explores the way we make meanings for nonfiction images, and how what we see in such images is related to our belief systems. 

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Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz compiles online video footage depicting the harsh reality of Palestinian existence under Israeli military rule. He then shows this footage to American students and films their reactions, focusing on one of them, Maia Levy, an enthusiastic supporter of Israel. Six months later, Alexandrowicz invites Levy to watch more footage. This time, Maia views edited footage of herself while she was watching the images of the occupation. She provides a reflective analysis of her previous commentary, offering a reflection on perception and how we see events through the filter of our own prejudices. 

This layered and underseen film, which did the rounds in 2020 at various film festivals, including the Berlinale, is an important watch, especially in the era of misinformation. It’s an arresting exercise which may not be the most cinematic on this list, but without a doubt one of the most arresting in terms of how we view, perceive and interpret current events.

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