August: AIPAC on Vacation, PBS Docs Knock Israel, Slip By

August 28, 2013 documentary, film, PBS, West Bank, WNET

In the past few weeks, two of the most influential recent films about the Arab-Israeli conflict have had  national broadcast premieres in the US. The PBS documentary series POV aired “The Law in These Parts” Mon. Aug. 19 and followed up  Aug. 26, with “5 Broken Cameras.”  POV runs only in the summer and fall, airing 15 new feature-length films — it’s pretty amazing that two of the 15 relate to the The Conflict.

The broadcasts didn’t make as much noise as I would have thought — but there were some amusing and telling twists in how they aired.

One factor that may have muted interest is that both films have been on the shelf for a while, and both burned through a good deal of press around their festival screenings and theatrical debuts. “The Law in These Parts” won the World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary at Sundance in 2012, and “5 Broken Cameras” won the World Directing Award, Documentary, at Sundance in the same year.  “5 Broken Cameras” went on to be nominated for an Oscar in 2012, along with “The Gatekeepers,” another film about the Israeli occupation, and arguably the film from this recent wave that has had the biggest impact.

“The Law in These Parts” and “The Gatekeepers” share a striking stylistic similarity — both consist of in-studio interviews with old Israeli men, and both are visually opened up by stock footage intercut with the interviews and shown as projections on studio green screens.  “The Gatekeepers” got more attention because its old Israeli men were former heads of the Shin Bet, while in “The Law in These Parts” the old guys were former judges from the administrative courts set up by Israel in the occupied territories after 1967.

Watch The Law in These Parts on PBS. See more from POV.

“5 Broken Cameras,” a collaborative film made by a first-time filmmaker Palestinian amateur camera man and an Israeli filmmaker, is more in the mold of previous films about the Palestinian resistance, such as “Budrus.”   “5 Broken Cameras” tells the story of several years in the life of a village engaged in resistance against the occupation and the encroachment of the security wall, told from the perspective of and through the camera of Palestinian Emad Burnat.

AIPAC must have been on vacation in August, because both POV films could be construed as “anti-Israel,”  yet there were not allegations of anti-semitism or calls to defund PBS.   That’s not to say that there were no critics of the POV broadcasts.  CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in the Reporting on the Middle East in America) denounced PBS for the broadcasts: “PBS doubles down on Anti-Israel Films.”  But this surely didn’t amount to a firestorm of indignation!

Perhaps one reason the reaction was so muted is that PBS anticipated criticism  and decided to air “pro-Israel” programs before and after the POV broadcasts — or  at least that was the case in the New York area, where WNET Channel 13 airs POV on Monday’s at 10 p.m.   I came across this “counter-programming” when I went to my TV guide to prepare to watch “5 Broken Cameras”  and noticed that WNET was airing a BBC documentary, “Israel: Facing the Future” between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.  And I subsequently learned that WNET had run a panel discussion after the airing of “5 Broken Cameras,” and a previous panel discussion after “The Law in These Parts.”  And as if that weren’t enough to head off irate calls from right-leaning Jewish contributors, WNET also ran two segments from a world affairs show (that was cancelled in 2010!), one about Israeli’s living within rocket range of Gaza and the other a soft piece about American emigres living in the settlement of Efrat.

Watch 5 Broken Cameras on PBS. See more from POV.

The BBC documentary was actually an episode of the well known BBC news series Panorama, a report filed by their veteran correspondent John Ware.  It was a thoughtful, middle of the road look at the conflict between secularism and religion in Israel, which expanded into a consideration of the occupation and how the occupation, and the settler movement, fit into the broader context.   The program seemed to be carefully balanced, with frequent references to the impact of terrorism, the situation in Gaza, and the historical context of Israel’s wars of self defense.   The program aired on BBC last April.  It was clear to me that Ware and the program’s producers sought to advocate the rather mainstream opinion in support of the two state solution (which doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be denounced by AIPAC or other “pro-Israel” groups).

I expected the WNET panels after the POV broadcasts to offer a “pro-Israel,” or at least a “balanced” perspective.  However,  the station seemed to have a had bit of trouble recruiting people from the AIPAC sphere of influence, at least for the 35-minute panel discussion that followed “The Law in these Parts.”  The group included Daniel May (J-Street), Roane Carey (The Nation), Noura Erakat (Temple U) and Thane Rosenbaum (Fordham U). It seems that Rosenbaum, in addition to having an amazingly wild head of hair, was the token “pro Israel” panelist — and it turned out that he’s a rather balanced, thoughtful observer who himself is a harsh critic of the occupation — in particular the settlement movement, which he described as a “moral blight.”

The world according to AIPAC found more of a voice on the 42-minute panel after “5 Broken Cameras” (the station emphasized that the panel was shown in its entirety, unedited).  The panel consisted of “pro-Israel” panelists Richard Stone (Columbia) and Brooke Goldstein (The Lawfare Project) ,in combat with Huwaida Arraf (co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement) and Leila Hilal (New American Foundation).  This panel was so balanced that the conversation spun out of control a few times amid allegations and counter allegations, ably moderated by Rafael Pi Roman, who handled the job on both panels.