Emad Burnat is the Palestinian director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, “5 Broken Cameras.” He is the first Palestinian to be nominated for an Academy Award.
He traveled to the United States this week because the Academy Awards ceremony is this weekend. It is common for nominees to be in attendance. But on Tuesday night, US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers detained and held him at the Los Angeles International Airport. They threatened to send him back to Palestine before the ceremony.
Burnat came with his wife and eight year-old son. On HuffPost Live, he described being put in a holding area with Africans and Asians. He tried to explain he was an Oscar nominee and that he had documents on his iPhone that would confirm his identity. The officers said they didn’t care. They needed more documents and more papers and, if he didn’t give them the documents, he would be sent home.
The Palestinian filmmaker was to attend a dinner for documentary nominees hosted by filmmaker Michael Moore. Burnat contacted Moore for help. Moore contacted Academy officials, who contacted the president of the Academy, Howard Koch. Koch, according to Moore, contacted a firm in Los Angeles to get an immigration lawyer. Moore also contacted someone in Washington, DC, who might be able to ask the State Department to intervene.
Burnat told his son Jibril they were under arrest. He was upset because he did not expect this to happen in America.
ICE officers eventually released him after one and a half hours. He was told he and his family could be in Los Angeles for a week to attend the Oscars. Burnat reacted, “It’s nothing I’m not already used to,” he told me later. “When you live under occupation, with no rights, this is a daily occurrence.”
Burnat was not informed of why he was stopped. He had previously attended Moore’s film festival in Michigan when his film was shown. He was able to get into the US with no problem. However, the Israeli government would not allow him to fly out of Tel Aviv. He had to get to Amman, Jordan, to fly to the US.
This time, Moore said, he simply decided to go to Amman and not Tel Aviv, but he was hassled and kept for five or six hours at a checkpoint before he was allowed to pass through to catch his flight. Given that, it is highly likely the Israeli government is responsible in some way for Burnat being detained.
The incident is similar to what happened in May 2012, when a Pakistani student who had won an international award for a short film on US drone attacks in Pakistan was denied a visa.
Danish Qasim, director of The Other Side which won the Best Audience Award at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth in Washington, produced a film that revolved “around the idea of assessing social, psychological and economical affects of drones on the people in tribal areas of Pakistan.” According to the Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune, it identified ”the problems faced by families who have become victims of drone missiles, and it unearths the line of action which terrorist groups adopt to use victimized families for their vested interests.”
Qasim had his visa application rejected twice. The director concluded this had happened because, “If we got the visa then it would have been easy for us to frame our point of view in front of the other selected youth filmmakers. The film gained interest from the audience across the globe compelling festival administrators to give Audience Award to the film.” His views run counter to US government policy on drones so he had to be ideologically excluded from visiting the United States.
In the case of Burnat, Alive Mind Cinema describes his film as a “deeply personal, first-hand account of non-violent resistance” in a West Bank village threatened by Israeli settlements. It consists almost entirely of footage shot by Burnat.
The film opens with him laying out his five cameras. He says, “I’ve lived through so many experiences. They burn in my head like a hot flame. Pain and joy, fears and hope are all mixed together.” He is talking about what he has witnessed through each of his cameras, along with the injuries and pain he has endured when targeted, detained and shot at by Israeli soldiers when trying to record the experiences of Palestinians.
The footage in the documentary captures the brutality of Israeli soldiers. It shows the thuggish nature of settlers, who beat up Palestinians that challenge their seizure of Palestinian land.
The images directly undermine Israeli government policy toward Palestinians, which the US government unapologetically and vehemently supports. For that reason, he was on a list of people to be deported and stopped from visiting the US. The last thing the government of this country wants is for people like Burnat to share their experiences with Americans. That might lead to Americans questioning US support for Israeli policies.
The administration of George W. Bush was notorious for denying visas to people, whose views were in direct conflict with American foreign policy. Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic intellectual hired by the University of Notre Dame, had his visa canceled under the Patriot Act and, in 2006, the State Department tried to cast him as a “material supporter of terrorism.” In 2005, Dora Maria Tellez, a Sandinista revolutionary who helped to overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza, was denied entry to take up a post as a Harvard professor. The State Department alleged she had been involved in “terrorism.” Sixty-one Cuban scholars sought to attend the Latin American Studies Association’s “international congress” in Las Vegas in October 2004. They were told letting them enter would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
In June 2006, the Marxist Greek professor John Milos, who was teaching political economy and the history of economic thought at the National Technical University in Athens, was denied entry to present a paper on “How Class Works” at a conference at the State University of New York. He had a visa that he had used five times and it did not expire until November. But, when he tried to enter to attend the conference, he was told there were “technical problems” with his visa. Then, he was interrogated at JFK airport and asked about his views and political involvement in Greece. His visa was canceled and he was sent back to Greece. In October 2006, Adam Habib, the professor of political science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a known South African political commentator, was detained at a New York airport. His visa was revoked. He was sent back to South Africa.
The next year, in April 2007, Riyadh Lafta, a prominent Iraqi professor of medicine at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, Iraq, was blocked from giving a lecture at the University of Washington and working on a research project on “increased rates of cancer among children in southern Iraq” His visa was believed to have been denied because he was “one of the principal authors of an October 2006 article in the British medical journal, The Lancet,” that produced a “controversy” when it estimated “more than 650,000 Iraqis” had been killed by the US invasion of Iraq.
Despite the fact that the State Department under Obama lifted the curb against Ramadan and Habib in 2010, individuals with views the US government considers dangerous are still being detained or denied visas. In February 2011, founding member of the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) campaign, Omar Barghouti, was denied entry to tour the US for the release of a book on his work. In March 2011, Afghan women’s rights activist Malalai Joya, a fierce critic of the Afghanistan war, planned to go on a US speaking tour and was denied a travel visa. The US embassy officer in Afghanistan said she was denied because she is “unemployed” and “lives underground.”
A Kurdish human rights advocate Kerem Yildz had trouble getting his visa approved in 2011. Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who has challenged and filed lawsuits against CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, was not granted a visa in 2011 when he wanted to attend a human rights conference at the Columbia University law school in New York City. [He was, after protests from CODEPINK and others, allowed to attend a drone summit in April 2012.] And, in October 2012, Pakistani political leader Imran Khan, an outspoken critic of US drone strikes, was taken off an international flight from Canada to New York and detained and interrogated by ICE about his views on drones. He missed a fundraising lunch in New York City he had hoped to attend.
People like Burnat come to the United States or travel long distances to accept awards because they want to share their experiences and views with people who do not live in their country and suffer the repression or injustices they live through daily. Burnat said in an interview, “Most people don’t know what’s happening in Palestine. They hear about it and see it on the news, but they don’t know the truth.” That is why Burnat edited the footage and his personal story and produced a film. It is also why ICE officers stopped him at the airport. The truth he brings to the United States poses a threat to the foreign policy agenda of the United States.
Here is Burnat and Moore on HuffPost Live: