Occupation seen through a lens
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 13, 2012
In the documentary “5 Broken Cameras,” filmmaker Emad Burnat chronicles a five-year period in his home town of Bil’in, a small Palestinian village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As Burnat explains in the narration, his son Gibreel was born in 2005, when the Israelis began constructing a separation barrier in Bil’in to protect nearby settlements. Burnat had acquired a video camera to trace his son’s childhood, but soon he was turning it on the friends and relatives who had begun mounting nonviolent demonstrations to protest the wall and stop Israeli settlers’ incursions into the ancestral olive groves of the Palestinians.
Over the course of filming, five of Burnat’s cameras were destroyed -- by stray bullets, tear-gas grenades and, in one instance, a crash into the barrier itself. But each camera captured a distinct chapter, not only in Burnat’s life and that of Gibreel’s -- whom we watch grow from a chubby infant to a sweet-faced toddler to a somber youngster -- but also in a protest that became a flashpoint for international peace activists and a role model for other West Bank communities.
Viewers may remember “Budrus,” Julia Bacha’s stirring documentary about that town’s heroic efforts to stop a barrier through Ghandi-esque resistance. Burnat tells a similar story in “5 Broken Cameras,” but with much darker and intimate raw material, including on-screen deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers who, at least from the perspective of Burnat and his neighbors, grew increasingly disproportionate and punitive in their response to the demonstrators. (In one of the film’s most heartbreaking passages, a stand of olive trees is set on fire; Burnat and his peers suspect settlers of retaliating against villagers’ attempts to reclaim the land.)
“5 Broken Cameras,” made with co- director Guy Davidi, takes the rough material of one man’s life and transforms it into a story that is universal and urgent, offering firsthand witness to events that are too often portrayed as distant and impossible to understand. (The film also leaves some provocative contradictions unexplored: We never hear, for example, Burnat’s opinion of the Israeli doctors who save his life in a Tel Aviv hospital after a near-fatal car accident.) The essay film -- a form favored by such eager on-screen personalities as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock -- here dodges the hazards of solipsism or showboating, instead illuminating an otherwise opaque part of human experience with deeply personal but widely resonant observations and emotion.
What’s more, in Burnat’s and Davidi’s capable hands, form and content become inextricably intertwined. The destroyed cameras themselves become largely unseen characters; their pixelated, fragmented, ultimately blank images create an eloquent visual grammar of cyclical violence and loss. It sounds dispiriting, and “5 Broken Cameras” often is, but Burnat’s insistence that filming is a form of healing and survival is just as convincing. He’s on his sixth camera now, he informs viewers at the end of his harrowing tale. And it’s still working.
Contains violence and disturbing images. In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles.