In the February 23rd edition of The Observer the commissioning editor for the BBC Four documentary series ‘Storyville’, Nick Fraser, wrote on the topic of the Oscar-nominated documentary film about the murders of half a million people in Indonesia some fifty years ago – “The Act of Killing” – and why it should not, in his view, receive that award.
Among the persuasive arguments presented, Fraser wrote:
“I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled “We Love Killing Jews”.
He then added:
“Think of other half-covered-up atrocities – in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Israel, any place you like with secrets – and imagine similar films had been made. Consider your response – and now consider whether such goings-on in Indonesia are not acceptable merely because the place is so far away, and so little known or talked about that the cruelty of such an act can pass uncriticised.” [emphasis added]
Can Fraser make an evidence-based case for his claim that Israel is a “place…with secrets” and “half-covered-up atrocities”? Can he objectively and factually maintain that Israel belongs in the same lumped-together category with genocide-blighted Bosnia and Rwanda? Of course he cannot, but that sentence perhaps gives us a glimpse of the accepted wisdom of the man in charge of commissioning “the best in character-driven documentaries with strong narratives”, as defined by the BBC.
Further on in his essay, Fraser wrote:
“But documentary films have emerged from the not inconsiderable belief that it’s good to be literal as well as truthful. In a makeshift, fallible way, they tell us what the world is really like. Documentaries are the art of the journeyman. They can be undone by too much ambition. Too much ingenious construction and they cease to represent the world, becoming reflected images of their own excessively stated pretensions.”
“Ingenious construction” is a very apt way of describing the editing process which brought about the creation of Emad Burnat’s film ‘Five Broken Cameras’, in which many of the most controversial scenes consist of footage from different occasions spliced together to create an impression of excessive and unprovoked violence on the part of Israeli soldiers dealing with the weekly riots at Bil’in. The product of that politically motivated editing process – combined with the amateur dramatics of some of the film’s Palestinian participants – does indeed “cease to represent the world”, instead promoting the political propaganda enabled by a deliberately distorted view of events on the ground – under the guise of factual documentary. As Nick Fraser might have put it, ‘Five Broken Cameras’ “teaches us nothing” about the realities of either the micro situation in Bil’in or the macro of the Palestinian political campaign which aims to shackle Israeli counter-terrorism methods and defame and delegitimise in the process.
One would perhaps expect that a seasoned documentary watcher and commissioning editor such as Nick Fraser would be easily able to identify the propaganda genre and to distinguish between it and genuine documentary – and perhaps he indeed can. But nevertheless, Nick Fraser has elected to broadcast ‘Five Broken Cameras’ as part of the ‘Storyville‘ series on BBC Four on March 3rd at 22:30 GMT under the title “The Village that Fought Back“.
Perhaps that Observer essay by Fraser provides a clue as to why this film is misleadingly being promoted by the BBC as a documentary – i.e. “a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject”. But what remains is the question of how an organization obliged under the terms of its constitutional charter to “[e]nhance UK audiences’ awareness and understanding of international issues” can justify the screening of blatant political propaganda under the guise of factual content.