Emad gets five cameras smashed, but he keeps on filming and gives us a rewarding insight into Palestine-Israel relations.

Emma Davie
Emma Davie's research area is documentary filmmaking. Her work explores approaches to narrative structure and form and how ethical questions affect this.

Five Broken Cameras

Emad Burnat, Guy David.

The Netherlands / France / Israel / Palestine 2011.

Five broken cameras—and each one has a powerful tale to tell. Embedded in the bullet-ridden remains of digital technology is the story of Emad Burnat, a farmer from the Palestinian village of Bil’in, which famously chose nonviolent resistance when the Israeli army encroached upon its land to make room for Jewish colonists. Emad buys his first camera in 2005 to document the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel. Over the course of the film, he becomes the peaceful archivist of an escalating struggle as olive trees are bulldozed, lives are lost, and a wall is built to segregate burgeoning Israeli settlements.

 There is something particularly affecting about film recorded by people who remain naturally in the middle of the action and within the reality in which the action takes place: where it is not a director or photographer who has visited the reality framework to get his film, but rather a number of people who are present anyway and simply choose to turn on the camera. Films such as Burma VJ (2008) and Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing (2010) clearly show the strength and extent of presence. A similar approach is adopted in Guy Davidi’s laudable project Five Broken Cameras. The Palestinian farm worker Emad Burnat is fascinated by camera technology, and when he invests in his first camera, he is quickly sought after in the community to capture the events that draw and shape the people who live in the city of Bil’in, near Ramallah. Soon Emad also begins to portray life in the frontier zones.
Five broken cameras

Here olive trees are removed from the Palestinian territories and replaced with Israeli concrete buildings. Here daily confrontations between stone-throwing Palestinians and heavily armed Israeli soldiers take place. And here is Emad with his camera which he stubbornly continues to leave on. That is until the camera is smashed by bullets. And it is often smashed. In fact, five times during the five years, the movie takes place. But Emad is tireless. He gets a new camera from a friend in town or he saves up by himself to be able to afford yet another camera. And all the time he lets the cameras capture life in the area. Even when Emad’s own brother gets arrested and dragged along by the Israeli soldiers Emad decides not to run after the soldiers and assist his brother. Instead he keeps on filming and captures an astonishing scene, and by doing so clearly illustrates that filming can also be an activist action that has an even greater impact than the act of interfering in the given situation.

Emad’s tireless efforts result in a convincing and empathetic film that succeeds in using the personal story captured by an amateur with half-decent cameras to illustrate the almost hopeless cycle of actions that seems to assert itself in the area. Five Broken Cameras succeeds in embodying the situation’s constant porosity. There is little reason for optimism after seeing the movie. Not that the film is looking for the sensational or dramatic as such, but the film leaves the impression of a situation that really has reached a deadlock and where nothing seems to change. Small children are dragged along to the demonstrations against Israel and will quickly learn who the enemy is and how the enemy should be treated. An everlasting flare of hatred is being created but you also understand why the children are present. They also have to know their reality. Or as Emad puts it about his own child: “The boy must see it for himself to understand how fragile the world and life is.”

At the same time Emad’s mother thinks of her son as a hero when he is risking his life to record footage. The fight will never stop. And the camera has several roles in this context. Five Broken Cameras is the camera as an observer. The camera as an activist. The camera as facilitator of more protest. And finally the camera as an almost divine protector; one of Emad’s cameras actually saves his life and takes the bullet, which would otherwise have ended up in Emad’s body. In a different situation, when Emad is knocked unconscious only to wake up again after 20 days, tragicomically he has to pay the hospital bill in Israel himself since the Palestinian Authority does not believe his injuries are related to the resistance struggle against Israel!

The power of Five Broken Cameras lies in its ability to unfold the personal story inside a greater tale of two people’s eternal struggle. At the same time, the film is a fine contribution at a time when the Arab Spring should be discussed and nuanced. For how much Arab Spring is to be found for the Palestinians in Bil’in and Ramallah?

Five Broken Cameras is however not a film without problems. In long sequences I have difficulties with its sentimental tone. To illustrate this conflict will easily become a David and Goliath story about how the heroic and hard-working everyday Palestinian protests non-violently against a heavily armed, vicious and ‘trigger happy’ superior force. The banal dichotomy stands in the way of a more sophisticated approach that could have included a larger political context and thus created a better understanding of the conflict.


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