In statements made exclusively to The Atlantic Wire, Michael Moore and Emad Burnat say the Palestinian filmmaker's detainment by LAX customs officials on his way to the Oscars was anything but a "publicity stunt," as a deeply flawed BuzzFeed report based on a single anonymous source characterized the incident. "BuzzFeed is trying to spin their way out of this," Moore said in an interview on Tuesday evening, "and they're just running the talking points from the customs officials there at LAX."
This story began last Tuesday night when Burnat, who had traveled with his wife and young son to attend the 85th Academy Awards, deplaned in Los Angeles. 5 Broken Cameras — his first-hand account of Palestinians protesting the construction of a security fence in the small, olive-growing West Bank town of Bilin — had been nominated for Best Documentary feature. He claims to have been detained by customs officials, who threatened to send him and his family "back to Palestine" unless he could prove the reason for his visit. Burnat says that after calling his friend and fellow political filmmaker Michael Moore for help, he was allowed to enter the country.
But what looks like an egregious example of post-9/11 racial profiling to Moore and Burnat came across as a "publicity stunt" to others. Who exactly are these others? We don't know, because the only source quoted by Tessa Stuart contesting the documentarians' versions of events has been kept anonymous. She cites an unnamed LAX official who thinks the whole incident is "baloney" and adds that Burnat was "not racially profiled." This unnamed source claims Burnat was immediately allowed to enter the country after producing a ticket to the Oscars ceremony. But, as Moore points out, no such ticket would've existed:
PS. An Academy official just emailed me: "Absolutely no one had physical possession of an Oscar ticket on Tuesday." Not Clooney, not Burnat.— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) February 26, 2013
The woman in charge of Oscars ceremony ticketing confirmed to Moore that Burnat wouldn't have possessed a ticket at the time even if they had been sent out early. Academy Awards tickets are never mailed out in advance — not to actresses in New York, not to farmers in Palestine.
The fallout from this article, which essentially accuses Moore and Burnat of lying, has not been pretty for BuzzFeed. The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald has called their story a "debacle," while MSNBC's Chris Hayes called it "really really embarrassingly shoddy journalism." After updating her article with Moore's ticket-related Tweets and backtracking on the word "sources" (BuzzFeed appended a correction this afternoon clarifying that only one source had provided information), Stuart attempted to back up her original reporting with a the contents of a hand-written log she obtained from LAX federal agents (again, anonymously), which "indicates that agents detained a Palestinian filmmaker for 23 minutes on his way to the Academy Awards." Stuart writes, "But while there is nothing in the log to contradict Burnat's account or his gratitude to Moore for leaping to his aid, the document does suggest that Moore overstated, at least, the length of the incident," based on Moore's estimate of "1.5 hrs" in a tweet.
It's quite a walk-back from the original story's premise, but Moore takes issue with even that characterization. In a lengthy phone interview with the Wire, Moore went through his text and email history and found that 40 minutes elapsed between the moment Burnat first contacted him for help and the moment Burnat let him know he'd finally gotten through customs. The log in Buzzfeed's report has Burnat being "referred to secondary inspection" at 5:28 p.m. and then "released from secondary inspection" at 5:53 p.m. But Moore and Burnat say those entries only catch the tail end of Burnat's interaction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. Overall, Moore estimated that Burnat's entire period of detainment lasted "a little bit over an hour."
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We did not speak to Buzzfeed's LAX source, but we did seek out others to give a better time frame of what happened when Burnat landed at the airport. The LAX station manager for Turkish Airlines tells us that Burnat's plane (number TK009) arrived at the airport at precisely 4:59 p.m., putting the flight 14 minutes behind schedule. In the half-hour between Burnat's arrival and the first log entry cited in BuzzFeed's post, Moore says Burnat and his family had already been taken to a two other holding areas, so 5:28 was not the first moment they encountered resistance from customs officials. Before the customs fiasco started unfurling, Burnat intended to go straight to a Cipriani's restaurant in Beverly Hills where he and the other documentary nominees were to dine with Academy members and documentarians like Michael Apted, Rob Epstein, and Moore himself. Moore was already at the restaurant waiting for Burnat when he received an anxious text. "They will send us back if you are late," Burnat pleaded. Moore says he immediately got in touch with Academy members, asking for help on Emad's behalf. They wrote back, cc'ing their attorneys to make them aware of the situation. They offered to intervene, but Moore says Burnat was allowed to enter the country before lawyers had to step in.
As for Burnat, he isn't sure about exactly how long he was detained, but he knows it was longer than 23 minutes. The filmmaker released the following statement exclusively to The Atlantic Wire through Kino Lorber, the distributor of his 5 Broken Films:
When I arrived at LAX with my eight-year-old child and wife, excited to attend the Academy Awards, the last thing I expected was for them to doubt who I am. I'm a Palestinian and a documentary filmmaker with a valid visa. What about that made me suspicious? I was so shocked that I didn't keep track of time, but I can tell you this: The "secondary" inspection that people seem to be focussing on was definitely just that — secondary. What the whole experience added up to seemed like forever to me and my family. And I don't understand why I'm being asked whether it was 23 minutes (it definitely was not) or more. That is the wrong question, and I think Americans should be proud that there are people like Michael Moore and so many others I met in L.A., who are willing to ask the right question: Why was I held in the first place?
We may never know exactly how much time transpired between Burnat's first point of contact with customs officials and when he was finally released. But we do know that BuzzFeed's source wasn't being entirely factual and that the real timeline of events suggests the incident exceeded 23 minutes. And to hear it from Moore and Burnat himself, this was not an attempt to drum up attention for his film. "We don't know, in the end, why exactly he was let go," says Moore. "It doesn't really matter if it took 5 minutes, or 23 minutes, or 23 hours ... The main issue here — and BuzzFeed is trying to cloud it because they got caught saying some things that aren't true — is why was he detained at all?"