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Pictures Speak Volumes in Oscar-nominated Israeli Films

By Jonathan Cook | Dissident Voice |  February 20th, 2013

Israelis have been reveling in the prospect of an Oscar night triumph next week, with two Israeli-financed films among the five in the running for Best Documentary. But the country’s right-wing government is reported to be quietly fuming that the films, both of which portray Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in a critical light, have garnered so much attention following their nominations.

Guy Davidi, the Israeli co-director of 5 Broken Cameras, one of the finalists, said industry insiders had warned him that pressure was being exerted on the Academy to stop the films winning the award.

“Many people in Hollywood are working very hard to make sure that neither film wins,” he said. “From Israel’s point of view, an Oscar would be a public relations disaster and mean more people get to see our films.”

The film is a searing account by Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat of a six-year period in his West Bank village during which the residents protested non-violently against an Israeli wall that cut off their farmland.

Israeli soldiers are shown beating, tear-gassing and shooting the villagers and solidarity activists.

The other Israeli-backed contender, The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh, features confessions by all six former heads of the Shin Bet, the main agency overseeing Israel’s occupation, since 1980. All are deeply critical of Israel’s rule over the Palestinians, with one even comparing it to the Nazis’ occupation of Europe.

Both films have won critical acclaim. This month The Gatekeepers won the Cinema for Peace Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film has also been picked up by a major distributor, Sony Pictures Classics.

With the Israeli media abuzz over the country’s Oscar hopes, the columnist Gideon Levy observed: “This is not a matter of Israeli pride but rather of Israeli chutzpah. … Israel should be ashamed of what these movies bring to light.”

Despite the publicity, showings of the films in Israel have been mainly limited to circles of intellectuals and left-wing activists.

Davidi said requests to the education ministry to put 5 Broken Cameras on the civics curriculum had been rebuffed. That appears to be in line with official efforts to avoid drawing attention to the documentaries.

The culture ministry, run by Limor Livnat, a hawkish ally of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, broke its silence to make a short, caustic comment. A spokesman, Meir Bardugo, said: “Israeli cinema doesn’t have to be anti-Israeli.”

Responding to claims from local film executives that Livnat had put pressure on them to start making films showing Israel in “a sweeter light”, Bardugo added: “If Livnat would interfere, these two films wouldn’t get to the Oscars.”

Paradoxically for the government, Israel’s claim to 5 Broken Cameras is disputed. Emad Burnat, the other co-director, said: “It’s my story. I am Palestinian and the film is about the struggle of my village in Palestine. If it wins, it will be a victory for Palestine, not Israel.”

Unlike the Best Foreign Language Film category, Oscar-nominated documentaries are not classified according to country. 5 Broken Cameras received US$250,000 (Dh918,000) from Israeli and French government film funds.

Nonetheless, the dispute echoes previous Oscar controversies, including claims that the Academy refused to consider Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention in 2002 because it did not recognise Palestine as a state, and a statement by Skandar Copti, the Palestinian-Israeli co-director of Ajami, that he would not “represent Israel” in the 2010 Oscars.

Both 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers exploit to the full the exclusive access the filmmakers had to their subject matter.

The former records in troubling detail confrontations between the Israeli army and the villagers, including a sensational scene in which a soldier fires directly at Burnat. The bullet lodges in his camera lens and saves his life.

However, of the two films, The Gatekeepers has polarized opinion most sharply in Israel and among many American Jews because its criticisms of the occupation are made from consummate insiders.

At a festival screening in Jerusalem last year, some audience members were reported to have shouted “Traitors!” at the former Shin Bet heads who attended.

Writing in the US weekly The Jewish Press this month, the psychology professor Phyllis Chesler argued that the $1.5 million-budget film followed “a lethal narrative script against the Jewish state”.

But the CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour described The Gatekeepers as “full of stunning revelations”. It is rare for senior officials to break a code of silence designed to shield their activities from scrutiny.

The film was made in absolute secrecy, according to the director. “I knew I had dynamite in my hands.”

Moreh is scathing of Netanyahu for his inaction on Palestinian statehood, calling him “the biggest danger to Israelis”. The antipathy has apparently been reciprocated. Netanyahu’s spokesman has told the media that the prime minister has no plans to see the film.

Another new Israeli documentary, The Law in These Parts, which has been competing in festivals alongside 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers, is causing similar unease among officials.

In it, some of the country’s top legal minds admit that their job was to create arbitrary and oppressive laws to control Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Lia Tarachansky, an Israeli-Canadian filmmaker whose documentary Seven Deadly Myths interviews aging former soldiers about the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, said the new films were groundbreaking: “For the first time people who know the system from the inside are providing a very precise, even clinical, picture of the structure of the occupation.”

She echoed Davidi’s fears that pro-Israel lobbyists were trying to stop critical films reaching a mainstream audience. “There is a lot of blind support for Israel in the industry.”

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He won this year’s Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hollywood’s Imperial Propaganda

By JOE GIAMBRONE | CounterPunch | February 20, 2013

Hollywood likes to pretend that things aren’t political when they are.  It’s that bi-partisan nationalist myth that if both corporate parties agree to cheer for the empire, then everyone cheers for the empire.  It’s gotten so bad now that races like the Oscars and the Writer’s Guild screenwriting award are tight contests between one CIA propaganda film and another CIA propaganda film.  The first one helps to demonize Iranians and set up the next World War scenario, while the second film fraudulently promotes the effectiveness of state-sanctioned torture crimes.

If there ever was a time for loud disgust and rejection of the Hollywood / Military-Industrial-Complex, this would seem to be it (contact@oscars.org).  Naomi Wolf made a comparison of Zero Dark Thirtys creators Bigelow and Boal to Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will).  That, to me, seems inappropriately offensive to Leni Riefenstahl.  The good German filmmaker never promoted torture through deception.  Nor was Triumph a call to war.  The film was simply an expression of German patriotism and strength, rebirth from the ashes of World War I.  The current insidious crop of propaganda, as in the CIA’s leaking of fictional scenes about locating Osama Bin Laden through torture extraction, are arguably more damaging and less defensible than Riefenstahl’s upfront and blatant homage to Hitler’s leadership.

The Zero Dark Thirty scandal should be common knowledge by now, but here is what the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wrote to Sony Pictures about it:

“We believe the film is grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden…  Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.”

The filmmakers had every opportunity to explore the issue more fully, instead of relying on the “firsthand accounts” of the torturers themselves, and/or their allies within the Central Intelligence Agency.  Notably, torturers are felons and war criminals.  Those who know about their crimes and help cover them up are guilty of conspiracy to torture.  Thus, these self-serving fairy tales that illegal torture led to the desired results (bin Laden) are tangled up with the motivation to protect war criminals from prosecution.  Not only does this claim of successful torture help insulate the guilty from legal prosecution, it also helps to promote further criminal acts of torture in the future.

Once this red flag issue was raised by the Senate, the filmmakers could have taken a second look at what they had put up on screens and reassessed the veracity of their material and the way it was being sold to the world.  Instead they doubled down.  Bigelow and Boal want it both ways, extraordinary access to CIA storytellers for a documentary-like “factual” telling of the bin Laden execution, but they also want license to claim that it’s just a movie and can therefore take all the liberties they please.

Jessica Chastain, who plays a state-employed torturer/murderer, who also allegedly located Osama bin Laden, said:

“I’m afraid to get called in front of a Senate committee… In my opinion, this is a very accurate film… I think it’s important to note the film is not a documentary.”

In a nutshell, that’s the Zero Dark Thirty defense.  It’s a highly sourced “very accurate film,” but we can take all the liberties we like because it’s not a documentary, and so if we made up a case for torture based on the lies of professional liars in the CIA, then oops.

Mark Boal went so far as to mock the Senate Intelligence Committee, at the NY Film Critic’s Circle:

“In case anyone is asking, we stand by the film… Apparently, the French government will be investigating Les Mis.”

Any controversy over the picture seems to help its box office, as more uninformed people hear about it.  The filmmakers themselves suffer no penalty as a result of misleading a large number of people on torture, to accept torture, to accept a secretive criminal state that tortures with impunity.

Kathryn Bigelow’s wrapped-in-the-flag defense of the film:

“Bin Laden… was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.” (emphasis in original)

Nice propaganda trick at the end equating those who “gave all of themselves” and “death” with the individuals who “sometimes crossed moral lines.”  Everyone’s dirty; you see.  All heroes are torturers; so it’s okay.

Bigelow’s half-assed response to getting called out by the Senate for putting false torture results into her film, is to say:

“Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.” (emphasis added)

Ignore? By her reasoning, because the Central Intelligence Agency tortured people, she was required to fit it into the plot somehow, whether it was relevant to the investigation or not. That’s her excuse. No matter that the scenes are fabrications, and the actual clues about bin Laden’s courier came from elsewhere (electronic surveillance, human intelligence, foreign services).

Bigelow told Charlie Rose, when asked the same question about the torture: “Well I think it’s important to tell a true story.”  Unfortunately, when confronted with the Senate investigation, truth quickly takes a back seat.

The truth Bigelow now clings to is that, “Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue.”  To Kathryn Bigelow, the fact that the so-called “experts” she has sided with are torturer criminals with a vested interest in her portrayal of their crimes never occurs to her.  She can dismiss the entire matter as a “debate.” Perhaps she no longer finds it “important to tell a true story?”

Kathryn Bigelow, America’s Leni Riefenstahl, claims that Zero Dark Thirty tells “a true story,” even when confronted by evidence that it is a lie.  She is unapologetic and completely divorced from the real world damage her propaganda encourages. If this film takes home the Best Picture Oscar, it should serve as the cherry on top of a brutal, deceptive, decrepit and immoral empire, and signal this reality to the rest of the world. If this is allegedly the “best” of America, then we are truly finished.

As for Ben Affleck’s Argo, its sins aren’t so readily apparent. Both films show wonderful Central Intelligence “heroes” acting to further US interests and take care of imperial problems. The Argo scenario is a rescue, however, instead of a hit. The problem is that Iran, a country thrown into a bloodthirsty dictatorship after its nascent democracy was murdered by the very same CIA in 1953, is now the bad guy. There are clearly two sides, and the film takes sides with the people who destroyed democracy in Iran and propped up an illegitimate monarch in order to control its oil and its refineries. When this despotic monarch whose secret police disappeared, tortured and murdered the political opposition – with the help and training of the CIA – is overthrown, we are supposed to overlook all that, because America is always good. We rescue our people. We risk our lives, and we come up with elaborate creative plans to help our people. We are heroic and triumphant vs. the inferior wild-eyed Persians and Arabs of the world.

Now I do believe there’s a real story there, and the situation is ripe for telling, but an extreme sensitivity to the political context would be required.

As Jennifer Epps put it:

“… [T]he Iran we see in the [Argo] news clips and the Iran we see dramatized are all on the same superficial level: incomprehensible, out-of-control hordes with nary an individual or rational thought expressed.

… But we never go behind-the-scenes at this revolution. (Instead, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio’s tempering historical introduction is soon outweighed by the visceral power of mobs storming walls, chador-clad women  toting rifles, and banshees screaming into news cameras.)

… The problem is that viewers … aren’t going to walk out of [Argo] muttering “gee, it’s more complicated than I thought.” Instead, they’ll leave with their fears and prejudices reaffirmed:  that Middle Easterners create terror, that Americans must be the world’s policemen, and that Iranians cannot be trusted because they hate America.

Argo almost completely ignores individual Iranians; its portrait of an entire culture is neither refined nor sophisticated; and it does reinforce a simplistic, Manichean perspective.”

Enough said?

So why are Argo and Zero Dark Thirty receiving all these awards?  Are the awarding bodies so full of hyper-patriots who believe pro-American films can deceive and demonize with impunity, that they want to send an unequivocal message of support for these practices?

Is hyper-nationalist propaganda in vogue now?

With the ascendancy of Barack Obama, there is no longer a moral anti-war voice of any significant size in America. Obama, the smooth talker, has soothed away morality, ethics, law and rights.  The empire is beyond reproach because Obama runs it. So the liberal center/left says nothing. Nothing but empty blather and ignorant praise of the Democrats. Murder is being codified in secret as we speak. Bush’s wars are being publicly scaled down, only to ramp up new covert wars of conquest across Africa. Nothing substantial has changed since George W., only the style.

There was a time when no one trusted the CIA. Far from heroes, they were the prime suspects in the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. CIA support of terrorists was well known, if not loudly opposed. This agency has sponsored Cuban exiles to commit acts of terrorism inside Cuba. Its Phoenix Program kidnapped and murdered Vietnamese villagers by the thousands, torturing and killing them for alleged communist sympathies. The CIA overthrew democracies from Iran to Gutemala to Chile, and was instrumental in waging a terror war against Nicaragua by employing drug-running mercenary terrorists called “Contras.” When the Church Committee investigated the agency in the mid-70s, lots of dirty laundry was aired. The agency was reined in for a time. Assassination was made technically illegal.

In the 1980s, the CIA fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by funneling money and arms to radical Islamic Jihadists – like Osama bin Laden – and creating an intelligence/military monster in Pakistan, known as the ISI. With untold billions of dollars of US tax money, plus Saudi oil money, the Pakistanis were propped up as a central hub for militant groups to operate throughout the region. Pakistan is where Osama bin Laden allegedly ended up living for the last decade of his life, half a mile from the Pakistani military academy.

The CIA today is instrumental in the blitzkrieg of terror across Syria. It funnels arms and money to radical Islamic Jihadists, exactly as it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 2011 it participated in the Libyan Crime Against the Peace doing much the same type of activity on behalf of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group that helped take over that nation despite being included on the US State Department’s Terrorist List! The LIFG has sent its fighters over to Syria, after the fall of Qadaffi, to assist in the genocidal guerrilla war against the Syrian state, as well as civilians. The CIA assists in these activities.

But of course those victims aren’t Americans. So none of that counts.

“…Is it healthy for us to hold up images of Cold War CIA agents as selfless do-gooders?” –Jennifer Epps

 Joe Giambrone is a filmmaker and author of Hell of a Deal: A Supernatural Satire. He edits The Political Film Blog, which welcomes submissions. polfilmblog at gmail.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Subjugation - Torture | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Oscar-nominated Palestinian director detained at LAX

By Yumna Marwan | Al-Akhbar | February 20, 2013

Palestinian director of Oscar-nominated “5 Broken Cameras” Emad Burnat was detained at Los Angeles airport and threatened with deportation Wednesday, Burnat told Al-Akhbar in an interview.

The filmmaker traveled to Los Angeles, from Palestine via Turkey, to attend Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, where his film had been nominated for the “Best Documentary” category.

The director was interrogated, detained for an hour and a half, and had his fingerprints taken twice. Airport officers googled his name to confirm that he had indeed been nominated for an Oscar.

LAX officials at first told Burnat they intended to deny him entry to the United States. “I told them I don’t care if you send me back to Palestine, just don’t detain me for any longer,” Burnat said.

His wife and eight-year-old son, who is the documentary’s main character, were also held at the airport.

During his layover in Turkey’s Istanbul, Burnat was also questioned by airport security officials.

Asked whether he thought he was sought out because of his film, Burnat said: “I don’t know, but this is the first time this happens. I’ve been to the States six times in the last year.”

“5 Broken Cameras” documents non-violent resistance in Bil’in, a Palestinian village surrounded by Israeli settlements and Palestine’s Apartheid Wall.

The US$400,000 documentary was made with contributions from Israeli and French government film funds. Its title refers to the number of cameras that Burnat, the filmmaker and main protagonist, had broken by Israeli forces as he tried to film weekly demonstrations against the military.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was the first to break the news of Burnat’s detainment, because the Palestinian director’s detainment kept him away from a dinner party for nominees where Moore was present. Moore announced Burnat’s ordeal on his Twitter account.

“Apparently the Immigration & Customs officers couldn’t understand how a Palestinian could be an Oscar nominee. Emad texted me for help.” wrote Moore in his Twitter account this morning.

Burnat won the documentary director’s award at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Subjugation - Torture | , , , | Leave a comment

Iran-Iraq-Syria Gas Pipeline Project Agreement Finalized

Fars News Agency | February 20, 2013

TEHRAN – Implementation of the Friendship Gas Pipeline project which is due to take Iran’s rich gas reserves to Iraq and Syria was agreed by the Iraqi government, an Iraqi cabinet statement announced.

A Tuesday Iraqi cabinet statement said that Iraq’s Minister for Petroleum Abdel Kareem Luaibi had been authorized to sign the “framework of the agreement” on setting up the strategic pipeline that would also prepare the ground for exporting Iranian gas to Europe through Syria in the future.

The statement added that Luaibi had recently held talks with his Iranian counterpart Rostam Qassemi and Managing Director of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) Ahmad Qalebani in Tehran regarding the issue.

Late in January, Iranian Oil Ministry Spokesman Alireza Nikzad Rahbar said the country will start exporting natural gas to Baghdad by next summer via an under-construction pipeline between the two countries.

He said that the “friendship” pipeline project between Iran, Iraq and Syria is the most important project currently pursued by the ministry.

The official said if the project is carried out according to schedule, the gas pipeline between Iran and Iraq will be completed next summer, adding that tripartite talks are underway to extend the pipeline to Syria.

He noted that the pipeline would be designed in such a way that it would be able to deliver gas to other Muslim countries like Jordan and Lebanon in the future.

The oil ministers of Iraq, Iran and Syria had signed a preliminary agreement for a $10 billion natural-gas-pipeline deal on July 25, 2011, in Assalouyeh industrial region located in the Southern province of Bushehr.

Iranian oil officials then said Syria would purchase between 20 million to 25 million cubic meters a day of Iranian gas while Iraq had also already signed a deal with Tehran to purchase up to 25 million cubic meters a day to feed its power stations.

The main project, 1,500 km length of piping Assalouyeh gas to Damascus requires $10 billion investment.

The pipeline will transfer a capacity of 110 million cubic meters of natural gas a day to Damascus.

The gas will be produced from the Iranian South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, which Iran shares with Qatar, and holds estimated reserves of 16 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas.

Iranian officials have said that Tehran also aims to extend the pipeline to Lebanon and the Mediterranean to supply gas to Europe.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Economics | , , , , , | Leave a comment