FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS: Two Directors Under Fire


In 2005, a Palestinian farmer named Emad Burnat acquired a cheap consumer video camera. His intention was to record the day-to-day life of his recently born fourth son, Jibril. The rapid growth of his three other sons had given him a keen sense of how quickly childhood is lost in the hardscrabble, rocky hills of his West Bank hometown, Bil’in. About the same time, construction crews under the aegis of the Israeli military (IDF), descended on the perimeter of the town, ripped open the earth, and began construction of a chain link and razor wire fence that bisected the traditional Palestinian farmlands. Beyond the fence and on higher ground overlooking the community olive grove, breakneck construction of multi-story, multi-block housing for new Israeli settlers was underway. One of the earliest scenes in what was to become Burnat’s six-year filmmaking odyssey shows Israeli surveyors with their tripods and theodolites, standing on a rocky but grassy Palestinian hill. A few shots later, a bulldozer uproots and cranes away olive trees from their adjacent valley, like amputating limbs from the villagers’ bodies.

Burnat soon began shooting footage of his and his fellow villager’s non-violent protests against the Israeli land grab, the erection of the illegal fence (and later, of the concrete separation wall that runs through the West Bank). Their non-violent but impassioned demonstrations were routinely broken up by IDF forces, who launched thousand of gas grenades to disperse them.

After Burnat’s first camera is destroyed by a shot from an IDF soldier, a second one is quickly given to him by his older friend, Ysrael, and he continues filming the protests. Sympathetic demonstrators from around the world, as well as some Israelis, joined the protests; they, too, were gassed and shot. Between 2005 and 2009, we see scenes of Emad’s sons growing up, incidents of village life, glimpses of the encroaching settlements, and of the relentless armed pushback by the IDF against the Palestinians when the villagers converge after Friday prayer.

Bil'in villagers tear down the illegal fence.
Bil'in villagers tear down the illegal fence.

During this period, Burnat becomes a more experienced cameraman, posting videos on YouTube, eventually becoming an accredited Reuters journalist and a videographer for international news agencies.

In 2009, Burnat and a documentary filmmaker named Guy Davidi, who had been one of the Israelis lending support, spend an afternoon on a rooftop in the village, discussing the plight of the embattled Palestinians. Burnat had been working on the structure of the film from the beginning but he enlisted Davidi to work with him. A sixteen month odyssey began, editing while shooting new scenes, the last of which was done, according to Emad, only one week before finishing the film in 2011.

Directors Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat.
Directors Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat.

Burnat had filmed over 700 hours of material.  After his second camera was destroyed by an aggressive Israeli settler who resented being photographed, he acquired a third one; it was destroyed by a bullet from an IDF rifle, the camera being sacrificed to save his life. Five cameras are broken during his years of filming. That final scene of the documentary is made with a still recording sixth camera.

The finished movie was shown to great acclaim at the 2012 Sundance Festival, winning the World Cinema directing award; in January, it garnered an AMPAS nomination as Best Documentary Feature. It has been released on DVD by Kino Lorber; here is the trailer:

Davidi knew Burnat and the village of Bil’in before the demonstrations had begun, having earlier made a documentary there on a dispute over water rights titled “Interrupted Streams.” After seeing some of Burnat’s scenes, Davidi and the farmer-turned-cameraman/director continued to develop structure to tell the story of the villagers’ struggle and through it, by subtle (but not explicit) metaphor, that of the Palestinian people’s struggles in the Occupied Territories. Although sections of the film focus on the stories of  two of the most activist villagers, Adeeb (who was early on in the filming jailed for a year, and later intentionally shot in the leg at close range by an IDF soldier), and the second figure, Bassem Abu-Rahme, nicknamed “el-Phil” (meaning the Elephant), the primary focus remains on Emad, his four children and his difficult relationship with Saroya, his wife, who in a wrenching and intimate  scene questions his continued filming.

Adeeb and Phil.
Adeeb and Phil.

Phil is a near constant companion of Jibril, a stand-in for the boy’s ceaselessly photographing father.

Frame grab of Jibril and Phil the Elephant.
Frame grab of Jibril and Phil the Elephant.

Late in the film, and quite shockingly, in the forefront of a protest against the IDF, Phil is killed on camera by a soldier.

But  Burnat and Davidi were convinced that the core narrative be not just another story of Palestinian martyrdom, but also should finally concentrate on the emotional story of Burnat and his family, the metaphor of the five broken cameras serving as a narrative framing device.

The weekly Friday post-prayer protests and the Army’s aggression toward the demonstrating, chanting Palestinians are intercut with scenes of the close knit family life of Burnat, Saroya and their sons, whom we see grow before us. We hear Jibril learn his first words: Jidat (wall), Matat (cartridge), Jesh (army).  We see Emad’s father and mother’s futile attempt to stop the arrest of their son, Khaled, as well as a mid-nighttime raid by the IDF who threaten Emad as he is photographing them breaking into his home, demanding he and his family have to vacate. He is put under house arrest, suspected of stone throwing. Even in these confines he continues to film, his recording camera a more lethal projectile than any stone.

Emad's mother (in white) pleads for release of her arrested son.
Emad's mother (in white) pleads for release of her arrested son.

The soldiers are silent, remote, anonymous, often hidden behind plastic face guards or gas masks, their barking rifles and grenade launchers answering the taunting protests of the villagers. Davidi tells us that it was not his and Burnat’s intention to demonize the Army or even the settlers—but to maintain a consistent first person POV that framed the documentary’s structure--- recording only what Burnat as a villager could know or experience. Davidi helps Burnat write a voice over narration for Burnat to use to focus the ongoing struggle; it succeeds in keeping close in tone to the deeply personal images recorded by his camera. This intimate perspective has the effect of drawing the audience into the travails of the villagers as they face a seemingly intractable force.

A wounded villager is carried from the field.
A wounded villager is carried from the field.
IDF forces try to enter Emad's home.
IDF forces try to enter Emad's home.

Just how close in, how harrowing the omnipresent danger is, is evident in a five-minute excerpt from the movie. Its POV is so much Burnat’s that the camera lens becomes your eyes as you are thrust into the confusion and disorientation of the protests, with a lurking fear of intrusion by armed IDF, even into your own home. In one interview, Davidi says that it was the always-potential presence of Israeli citizens alongside the Palestinians that prevented much graver violence and bloodshed to the villagers.

Some have criticized the film as being too narrowly focused on one place and point of view—but Burnat and Davidi insist that this is necessary—the movie is the story of one village and its residents and not a political tract about the larger Israeli/Palestinian problem or a meditation on a two state solution. It is this close in, human level scrutiny that makes the viewer so emotional.

Burnat continued filming even as he and Davidi shaped the film’s voiceover narration and continued the editing. The editorial dynamic was fluid as the on-site situation evolved. Even after the near two-year editing process, the filmmakers engaged a noted French editor, Veronique Laguarde-Segot, with whom they worked for two months in Paris giving further dramatic and emotional shape to the narrative.

After the confrontations, after the outbursts of gas grenades and gunfire, after the Palestinian olive orchards are burned out by nearby Israeli settlers, after the death of Phil the Elephant and his funeral, and after the Israeli court finally requires the IDF to remove part of the illegal fence, the film concludes on a quiet note. Early on, Burnat has said, “When something happens in my village… my first instinct is to film it” and “when I film, I feel like my camera protects me, but this is an illusion.” After having been shot and after having been grievously injured in an accident at the Wall, he now says “Healing is a challenge in life… it’s a victim’s sole obligation… by healing, you resist oppression… but when I’m hurt over and over again, I forget the wounds that rule my life… For often wounds cannot be healed… so I film to heal.

In his May 2012, review of the film A.O. Scott briefly address the idea of the first person documentary, an area that has become very rich in subject matter because of the “democratization” now made possible by affordable, high quality HD digital cameras. The first person documentary is a subject I want soon to write about here.

In other circumstances, Mr. Burnat might fit comfortably into the ranks of artists who use the medium of digital video for private reflection and ruminations on the small epiphanies of daily life. And “5 Broken Cameras” deserves to be appreciated for the lyrical delicacy of his voice and the precision of his eye. That it is almost possible to look at the film this way — to foresee a time when it might be understood, above all, as a film — may be the only concrete hope Mr. Burnat and Mr. Davidi have to offer.

In film documentaries, this year has not been a good one for the Israeli government and its military. In addition to 5 Broken Cameras, another Academy nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers, employs interviews with six surviving Shin Bet leaders to reveal details of decades long military actions against the Palestinians and others, actions that reveal many problematic rationales.

And The Law in These Parts, a much rougher and inexpensive film shot against greenscreen, interviews retired military judges who were responsible for enforcing the orders of the IDF in the Arab Occupied Territories. Israeli citizens, however, are under the separate jurisdiction of civilian courts.

Both of these latter documentaries were directed by Israelis, reflecting the spectrum of its own citizens’ attitudes on the issue of Israel/Palestine relations. What separates 5 Broken Cameras from these other two award-winning documentaries is the intimacy and personal lived experience it records.

In a video interview posted by the Guardian newspaper, Burnat and Davidi talk about the emotional turmoil they confront daily while caught in the dangers and passions of the moment. Their drive to objectively bear witness as journalists even as they are part of the unfolding drama is a rare position for any filmmaker to find himself. It is never as real to Burnat as when his third camera is struck by an IDF bullet and he is almost killed.

Embedding has been disabled, but you will see this in depth clip by just clicking on the underlined "Watch on YouTube"

Burnat’s filming the traumatic story of himself, his family, his village, his land, has enabled him to rise beyond the pain and self-victimization that has become such a badge of the Palestinian people, to a greater understanding of what it may require to some day live in their own land as a partner of Israel, some day when the kind of relationship that exists between Burnat and Davidi is not an anomaly, but is normal.

Phil attends to the wounded Emad whose 3rd camera has been struck by an IDF bullet..
Phil attends to the wounded Emad whose 3rd camera has beenstruck by an IDF bullet.

Next: WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY at the Annenberg Space







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