5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat/Guy Davidi — Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands) 94 minutes
Palestinian farmer-turned-video journalist Emad Burnat’s Oscar-nominated film 5 Broken Cameras is a sharp piece of activist documentary whose very existence is a blow struck against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
In the film’s opening sequence, Burnat lays out his five cameras, all of them smashed and unusable; the five of them are of progressively more professional quality, reflecting his own blossoming into a talented video-journalist. The film documents, in linear sequence, the lifetime of each camera, using the footage shot by each of them. Emad started filming initially just out of amusement, to film his young family as they grew up and to document the lives of his fellow villagers, in Bil’in, a hill-side village in the West Bank.
When engineers turn up one day in 2004, and seal off the villagers’ land to start building a Jewish settlement, Emad begins to film the weekly protests he and the villagers mount against the construction. (The arrival of the engineers is portrayed, quite sardonically, in the classic natives-meet-colonisers mould – a coy but perfectly legitimate formulation.) When Emad’s first camera is irreparably damaged, he acquires a new one and continues filming. Cameras have been a vital tool for the popular protests against the Occupation in recent years, with both Israeli and Palestinian human-rights NGOs distributing them and training activists in their use. The Israeli Defence Force, unhappy with their illegal activities being recorded, do their best to impede the filming, either by coercion or outright violence – three of Emad’s cameras meet their end at the hands of either bullets or tear-gas canisters. The structure of the film, then, embodies the tenacity and the stubbornness of the villagers’ resistance, and, you might say, the Palestinian resistance as a whole. The cameras break but each time they are replaced and filming continues.
And all Emad need do is film. The IDF obliges with its actions, having a trigger-happy policy of shooting protesters they find irritating, even when they know they are in full view of the camera. Probably the most shocking scene of the film, in fact, is not the shooting dead of one of the villagers (which is shocking enough) but one where an Israeli soldier shoots a manacled prisoner in the leg, gangland-style. The military constantly threaten Emad, as well as other camera-men, telling him he is encroaching on a military zone (including once when he answers the door in the middle of the night). As the resistance to the settlement gains momentum – and draws support from Israeli and international activists – the IDF takes to swooping in the middle of the night and arbitrarily arresting the village children.
After several years of facing off with the IDF and thuggish settlers – mostly peacefully, with the occasional outbreak of stone-throwing by local youths, the village finally gets help from an unlikely source – the Israeli Supreme Court, which orders the Israeli separation fence to be moved, thus giving back some of the villagers’ land. It’s not much of a victory though as the same year, the Supreme Court also rules the Mattityahu East settlement legal; meanwhile more and more Palestinian land gets eaten away, making a further mockery of the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution, which is now dead in the water. The Israelis are, in the words of Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah, eating the pizza while negotiating over it.
There are two sides to many aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict, some much more asymmetric than others. On the Occupation, however, there are no two sides. Israel’s continued presence on the West Bank is a violation of international law, the Geneva Conventions, countless UN resolutions, the Oslo Accords and even Israeli law itself. Burnat and his Israeli co-director Guy Davidi may, naturally, be selective in what they show in their montage, as any documentarist will be, but the presence of Israeli troops and settlers on Burnat’s camera absolves him and Davidi of any responsibility to be scrupulous. Israel and its citizens are trespassing on land occupied following a conflict and the directors of 5 Broken Cameras are under no obligation to show their side of the story.
5 Broken Cameras is as much a testimony as it is a documentary. It is a glimpse of the long view the Palestinian people have come to adopt in recent decades, even as hopes have been dashed and their military and political representatives have been rendered ineffective. And the Palestinians, outraged as they are, have also learned to be phlegmatic. When Burnat and his wife and son Djibril, a child whose young life is itself documented by the film, went to Los Angeles to attend the Oscars, they were detained by US Immigration, who refused to believe his reason for being there. Though clearly unimpressed by the INS’ attempt at humiliating him, he shrugged it off, saying it was something he and other Palestinians experienced on a daily basis. Emad Burnat will have more cameras broken, and may even end up in hospital again, as he did during the course of filming, but he won’t be giving up the fight too easily.