- Associated Press - Thursday, January 3, 2013

JERUSALEM — The Middle East conflict has done little to help Israel’s image in the world, but the way local filmmakers deal critically with the Israeli-Palestinian issue has won wide international praise — and this year, recognition from the top of the movie industry.

Two Israeli-produced documentaries about the conflict have been put on a shortlist for Academy Award nominations. Few Israeli films have contended in the best documentary category. The films on the shortlist this year represent rare recognition of foreign entrants in a category dominated by American productions.

The two films examine the conflict from contrasting viewpoints, one through the eyes of the occupier and the other through those of the occupied. Neither does any favors for the Israeli government, which helped foot the bill.

“The Gatekeepers” features candid interviews with retired Israeli spymasters, and “5 Broken Cameras” tells the personal story of an amateur Palestinian cameraman who documents clashes between his fellow villagers and Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Both films were listed by The New York Times as “Critics’ Picks,” and “The Gatekeepers” won praise from the paper’s chief critic as one of the best documentaries of 2012. The final Oscar nominations will be announced Thursday.

Israel’s overall image in the world has taken a beating because of the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians, but even critics say its film industry shows that Israel remains a vibrant democracy. In recent years, international film festivals have awarded Israeli directors accolades for their soul-searching portraits of the country.

Israeli films were finalists for the Academy Award for best foreign language film four times from 2008 to 2012. Israel received more nominations during that period than any other country. Three of the films dealt with the Israeli-Arab issue.

Films going beyond the conflict also have scooped up awards. A feature film this year about the country’s cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish community won the best actress award at the Venice International Film Festival, though it did not make the cut for the Oscars.

This “golden age” of Israeli cinema is almost counterintuitive. While shining a critical light on Israeli policies and society, the films have been significantly bankrolled by the government.

“Our ability at self-criticism is very rare,” said Yehuda Stav, chief film critic at the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. “There is complete freedom [in Israel] to make documentary films that talk about our problems, that criticize what we do.”

In Israel’s informal society, filmmakers and journalists have easy access to senior officials. That helped director Dror Moreh secure exclusive interviews with some of Israel’s most shadowy figures: six retired directors of Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet.

The position is so secretive that, until recently, the director of the Shin Bet was long known to the public only by his first initial, and his identity was disclosed only upon retirement.

In Mr. Moreh’s film, they sit before the camera dressed informally in polo shirts or suspenders, speaking frankly about their memories of tracking Palestinian militants and radical Israeli settlers.

Mr. Moreh said he wanted his film to change the understanding of the Middle East conflict by featuring the people whose job it was to manage it.

The other film on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination, “5 Broken Cameras,” uses footage shot by Palestinian farmer and amateur filmmaker Emad Burnat, who bought a camera to make home videos but ended up documenting six years of family life against the backdrop of weekly Palestinian demonstrations against the construction of Israel’s West Bank separation barrier through his village of Bilin.

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