Feb. 19 was the Motion Picture Academy-sponsored dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., honoring the directors and producers of this year’s five nominated films for Best Documentary. The dinner was an occasional tradition my wife and I started six years ago when we took our fellow nominees (we were nominated for “Sicko”) out for a meal to get to know each other. The Academy liked the idea, so this year it held dinners during Oscar Week for each of the separate branches’ Oscar nominees.
Thus, as an elected Governor of the Documentary Branch, I and my fellow Governors — Michael Apted and Rob Epstein — co-hosted the nominee dinner for the documentary filmmakers. But one of the nominated directors was not there — Emad Burnat, the co-director of the Oscar-nominated “5 Broken Cameras.” This exceptional, award-winning movie about how Emad’s village in the West Bank used non-violence to oppose the Israeli government’s decision to build a wall straight through their farms and village — only to see (and capture on camera) Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinian civilians — had become the first Palestinian documentary ever nominated by the Academy.
While we awaited Emad’s arrival from the airport — he and his family had already spent almost six hours at an Israeli checkpoint as he was attempting to drive to Amman, Jordan, to catch their plane — I received an urgent text from Emad, written to me from a holding cell at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Here is what it said, in somewhat broken English: “Urgent – I am in the air port la they need more information why I come here . . . Invitation or some thing . . .Can you help they will send us back . . . If you late. Emad”
I quickly texted him back and told him that help was on the way. He wrote back to say Immigration and Customs was holding him, his wife, Soraya, and their 8-year old son (and “star” of the movie) Gibreel in a detention room at LAX. He said they would not believe him when he told them he was an Oscar-nominated director on his way to Sunday’s Oscars and the events in Los Angeles leading up to the ceremony. He is also a Palestinian. And an olive farmer. Apparently that was too much for Homeland Security to wrap its head around.
“They are saying they are going to put us on the next plane back to Amman,” he told me.
I immediately contacted the Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and COO Ric Robertson, who in turn told Academy President Hawk Koch. They got ahold of the Academy’s attorney, who is also partners with a top immigration attorney, and they went to work on it. I called the State Department in Washington, D.C.
I also told Emad to give the Homeland Security people my name and cell number and to have them call me so I could explain who he was and why they should let him go.
After being held for somewhere between one and two hours, with repeated suggestions that the U.S. may not let him into the country — saying that they may send him back home — the authorities relented and released Emad and his family.
I texted him to say we would not start the dinner until he arrived. When he got there, he was fairly shaken and upset.
He told us that this sort of treatment is something he is used to “on a daily basis under occupation.” He gave an eloquent and moving impromptu speech, in his usual soft-spoken voice, to his fellow nominees. He said this was his sixth trip with his film to the U.S. this year and that this was the first time he was detained. He said they wanted to see some “official document” that he was an actual nominee. I said, “Doesn’t Immigration have Google?”
The Americans in the dining room apologized to Emad for the way our government and its security police treated him. We then sat down and ate some good ol’ American roast beef.
Michael Moore is the Oscar and Emmy-winning director of “Roger & Me,” “Bowling for Columbine,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which also won the top prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and went on to become the highest grossing documentary of all time.