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Thursday, December 25, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

More on a (Palestinian) 'Point of View'

For the past 40 years or so, I have been dealing, one way or another — as a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and ombudsman — with the Arab-Israeli conflict. I hope that I'm wrong, but my sense is that five, 10 or even 20 years from now, whoever is in those kind of positions will still be dealing with it. Even if some settlement should emerge, you can be sure that lots of people will not be satisfied.

So, I am used to the strong feelings on all sides about the conflict and about how it is presented in various media. I'm also sure that this column will not satisfy many people because I don't think that is possible. But I would like to say — for whatever it is worth to readers of this column — that I try to come at these issues in a fair-minded way.

This column is a follow-up to one posted two weeks ago that dealt with a "message to subscribers" from the U.S.-based, pro-Israel media watch organization known as CAMERA and headlined "PBS Doubles Down on Anti-Israeli Films." That refers to two, 90-minute films that were scheduled to be shown on Aug. 19 and 26 as part of the long-running series on PBS called "POV," which stands for documentaries with a "point of view." The alert from CAMERA actually was distributed to its subscribers before the first program had been aired and almost all of the 40 or so messages I received originally appeared to be from viewers acting on the CAMERA advisory but who had not seen the film.

My column was posted on Aug. 21 after the first film, "The Law in These Parts," was broadcast. You can read the original CAMERA critique of both films and my assessment of the first film, including a PBS and POV response to both films, by clicking on the links above.

The second film, "Five Broken Cameras," aired on Aug. 26. It provoked additional mail from viewers who clearly had seen the film. A representative sampling is posted farther down in this column.

According to the description on the POV website, the film "is a deeply personal first-hand account of life and nonviolent resistance in Bil'in, a West Bank village where Israel is building a security fence. Palestinian Emad Burnat, who bought his first camera in 2005 to record the birth of his youngest son, shot the film and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi co-directed. The filmmakers follow one family's evolution over five years, witnessing a child's growth from a newborn baby into a young boy who observes the world unfolding around him. The film is a Palestinian-Israeli-French co-production."

Well, yes, but. This film is a lot more than that rather benign, written description. It is a very tough, very one-sided portrayal of daily life inside a Palestinian village that is on the frontline of a very controversial Israeli policy of building settlements in the occupied West Bank and constructing separation barriers that seal off these villages and portions of their olive groves. This is a documentary, but not like a documentary on PBS's Frontline, for example, where both sides of an issue are explored. That is the strength of this film, because it is rare that American audiences get such an intimate look at what it is for a family and small community to live under and struggle against such conditions. But it also is its weakness because it opens it up to critics who contend — correctly — that a lot is left out.

In an introductory section of the film, the one-time Palestinian farmer, Burnat — who starts out with the first of what becomes five cameras to record the young life of his fourth son and becomes the recorder of seemingly endless conflict that goes on out of sight of much of the world — explains on camera that people "don't know the reality of our life. This is a Palestinian film, a Palestinian documentary . . . It is my experience, my personal perspective, my point of view."

So in that sense, this is a documentary of a point of view, and that is what POV is supposed to be about. The film was not meant, as the Israeli co-director Davidi says on camera at the outset, as a "competition of who suffers the most."

What's missing from this film is any sense of why Israel builds these barriers and of the terrorist attacks Israel has endured in the past without such barriers. There is nothing about the failures of peace negotiations, or the shortcomings of Palestinian authorities, or insight into the Israeli soldiers who constantly confront the protesting villagers. The most extensive criticism of the film that I saw was in the Algemeiner, which bills itself as the "fastest growing Jewish newspaper in America" and describes the film as a fairy tale.

My Thoughts and Others' Thoughts

Nevertheless, the value of this film, in my view, exceeds the lack of any balance (although Burnat does record how his life was saved in an Israeli hospital). Whatever one's views about this conflict, the story of average people's lives under occupation that has lasted for generations — a situation that Palestinians can view as terrorizing — is important and deserves to be told. The power of the film is that it was shot by an amateur photographer, albeit one who had some editing help by an activist Israeli producer, and it provided scenes that Americans almost never get to witness.

I certainly understand why critics of the film describe it as anti-Israeli but this is a documentary of Palestinian life in this village and that story is the only one that could be told by the person who made the film and those images convey a daily authenticity that, as I see it, benefits a fuller understanding of the conflict.

And the question of settlements is a controversial one in Israel. According to a recent Pew Research survey, about four in 10 Israelis (42%) believe the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts their nation's security; 27% say the expansion of settlements helps Israel's security, and 23% say it does not make a difference. Israeli Arabs are far more likely than Israeli Jews to say the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts Israel's security . . . Israeli Jews are divided: 35% say the expansion of settlements hurts the security of Israel, 31% say it helps, and 27% say it does not make a difference. Among Jews, those who are secular are considerably more critical of the continued building of settlements than those who describe themselves as traditional, religious or ultra-Orthodox.

The film was released last year and won the Best Documentary Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, a similar award at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. and a number of others abroad, and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 as well.

The Los Angeles Times described it as raw but also "lyrical and elegiac . . . the immediacy with which it bears witness to injustice is powerful and affecting." The New York Times said that "while it is hardly neutral" it is "much more than yet another polemical bulletin from an embattled region . . . a modest, rigorous and moving work of art." The Washington Post says it "takes the material of one man's life and transforms it into a story that is universal and urgent, offering firsthand witness to events that are too often portrayed as distant and impossible to understand."

France 24 describes it as "a purely and unapologetically subjective piece of filmmaking. There is no larger context provided, no attempt at even-handedness, no voice given to the poker-faced Israeli soldiers. Burnat and Davidi give us access to one slice of the conflict, packaging it into a sturdily constructed work that bristles with barely contained fury. Still, no broader or more politically nuanced take on the Israeli-Palestinian mess can invalidate the personal pain that the film so vividly captures. Moreover, as '5 Broken Cameras' leaves one wondering: how can someone offer a balanced vision of a situation if he is literally living in the thick of it?"

Finally, what strikes me at times in the ombudsman's chair is that many people who write or call to claim that a certain film — and I'm speaking broadly here, not about this particular film — is biased may have a point. But I feel that at least some of such complaints tend to discount the ability of intelligent, engaged viewers — which PBS has — to be able to deal with a filmmaker's attitude, to take that into their own account as viewers and assess the film objectively; to see the value of a side rarely seen.

Here Are the Letters

So two consecutive weeks of unbalanced, anti-Israel propaganda films out of the 15 documentaries being broadcast on PBS should be discounted because there is programming that presents the views of both Israel AND its opponents dispersed throughout your other broadcasts? How does that in any way balance this iniquity? Would the reverse also be true? If two consecutive weeks of one-sided, pro-Israel films were aired on PBS, would its executives and producers determine that Israel's opponents ought to feel placated because, at various other points, both Israel's views and those of its detractors were discussed on separate programs? It's totally ridiculous. I hate to be the person to allege bias, or to have to disparage PBS to my friends and family — many, if not most of whom have contributed to a network we've loved and supported throughout our lives — but its current agenda here is unconscionable. It's interesting to me how Jews and Israel are often only thrown a bone of quasi-positive coverage during pledge week; I'm afraid it won't work this time. You should hope, for your sake, that the Israel-haters you've worked so diligently to please can make up the difference in funding. Also, please do not allege that we the viewers have not seen a certain film you plan to air simply because you have yet to broadcast it. In the case of both your recent anti-Israel propaganda pieces, they were released months earlier in theaters and other media forms. And I'm sure we'd appreciate if you took care not to further belittle our concerns by portraying us as some sort of idiotic stooges merely responding to the encouragement of an advocacy organization. I'd wager condescension is a decidedly inadvisable technique, at this point.

Joshua Zatcoff, Gilbert, AZ

~ ~ ~

You have addressed the issue of Bassem Tamimi reading his propagandistic statement at the end of the anti-Israel film "The Law in These Parts." But you have yet to address "5 Broken Cameras" and its distorted narrative, which purposely edited out all the scenes of anti-Israel agitators being violent toward Israeli soldiers to make it look as if the soldiers needlessly attack innocent people. The film also barely mentions that the only reason a security barrier was needed was the endless terrorism that wounded or killed thousands of innocent Israelis and Arabs. (Arabs are a 20 percent minority in Israel.) I urge you to comment on the complete lack of reality of "5 Broken Cameras" and to insist that PBS show some balanced or pro-Israel films in the future. Holding strictly to the Palestinian Arab narrative is not called balance or fairness, and PBS viewers deserve a lot better.

Forest Hills, NY

~ ~ ~

I was surprised to finally see a network present the Palestinian point of view. I have been watching PBS and also following the Palestinian/Israeli conflict since the 1970's. Only once, about 20 or 30 years ago, PBS aired a film about a young Israeli girl and her Palestinian male friend who confront her parents about the truth regarding the dispossession and exile of the Palestinians. It showed footage taken back at the birth of Israel, showing settlers erecting the framework of their new houses during the night, with a large fence around it. In the morning, the local native Palestinian neighbors woke up to find their land had been taken from them. This filmed activity documented the root of the current ongoing problem, the taking of land from Palestinians for Israeli settlers.

The only other program that aired on PBS over the 40 years I've been watching was called Days of Rage, which covered the first Intifada, from the Palestinian point of view. I know that PBS came under strong attack from pro-Israel supporters, that the show was postponed until it could be sandwiched between a pro-Israeli film, and a panel debate following it. Since then, PBS has not aired any Palestinian films because of the intimidation it experienced. This is not fair to the American public that has a right to hear both sides of the conflict. I applaud your decision to air it. I urge you to continue to show evenhandedness by airing more informative films, to give a broader, historical context and background to viewers so they can fully understand how this conflict started and why it continues since 1948. I have been restored with hope to see the courage of PBS to present, finally, the sad reality of Palestinian life under a 40 year brutal, illegal, military occupation.

Hackensack, NJ

~ ~ ~

As a publicly supported institution, don't you have a responsibility not to air films labeled, "documentary" when, in reality, they are not "documentaries" at all, but one-sided, imbalanced propaganda films? In "The Law in These Parts," and "Five Broken Cameras," the films pretend balance, when there was no mention of the terrorism or suicide bombings that provoked the fence and the measures taken by the Israelis to protect themselves? And where were your journalistic standards when the film creator failed to mention the continued refusal by the Palestinian rejectionists to form a state? Did you not see a responsibility to mention that all previous efforts, the most recent ones being the Clinton/Barak/Arafat and the Ehud Olmert accommodations to the Palestinians to establish their state? And where were your standards in challenging the films' creator in asking the IDF or Israeli spokespeople for their explanations on "5 Broken Cameras"? Those 2 films were a disgraceful performance on your part, one that puts in doubt the veracity of any future "documentaries."

Jack Salem, Los Angeles, CA

~ ~ ~

You aired "5 Broken Cameras" tonight that shows the Arabs point of view of a situation. Are you going to show an Israeli point of view to be fair and balanced, which is what I expect from PBS?

Pepper Pike, OH

~ ~ ~

Two anti Israel movies in one week with no historical background to why Israel needed to put up the wall and no movie of how the settlers have suffered from the Palestinians.

Newtown, PA


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