Documenting life on Palestine’s front lines, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras sees a man with a movie camera uncovering the ethics of filmmaking.
Through The Olive Trees by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s hard to think of a film that’s so single-mindedly focused on land as Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras. And while it sits alongside Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth with its collective suffering, Ken Loach’s Land And Freedom with its political ideals or Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies with its spectre of lost heritage, their documentary on the Palestinian struggle for land in Israel is perhaps closest to the gun-slinging power-play of a western, even without the gloriously adoring Technicolor landscapes. Taking the Israel-erected separation wall along the West Bank as its focus, 5 Broken Cameras echoes Simone Bitton’s 2004 documentary Wall, but the film’s unadulterated and digital retelling of the illegal appropriation of Palestine’s ancestral lands makes the plight of the ousted villagers all the more affecting. It’s a fight made all the more tragic by its inequality, the non-violent means of the Palestinian villagers no match for the might of the Israeli army, and also by the incompatibility of its aims – the Palestinians argue for concepts and ideas while the Israelis fight for territory. But on this front line, friendships are formed, and while the land is precious for the food it provides its inhabitants, it’s overwhelmingly a uniting force. Except of course, where it’s divided by concrete walls – scars the land continues to bear.
Emad is a falah – a subsistence farmer who feeds his wife and four sons from the land. His youngest son, Gibreel, was born in 2005, the year Emad got his first camera and the year his home village of Bil’in was carved up by Israeli contractors. Through the lifespan of five video cameras, Emad films the weekly non-violent demonstrations the outraged villagers stage every Friday after prayers, each camera smashed or shot as the Israeli army responds with tear gas and rubber bullets. Crafting a story with Israeli director Guy Davidi out of Emad’s nose-to-the-ground camerawork, Five Broken Cameras is a raw piece of testimony filmmaking, bearing witness to political oppression and resistance as well as one man’s own personal quest to remember and heal through moving image.
The first camera charts the genesis of Bil’in’s peaceful protests and the village’s rise to international fame. Villagers are cut off from ancient lands, olive trees torn out by the roots and barriers constructed, watched by Israeli soldiers. The villagers, with stalwarts Phil, Adeem and Daba at the forefront, chain themselves to railings, lie down in front of tanks and lock themselves in containers dropped over the wall by cover of darkness. They’re shoved, shot at, threatened, showered in a hail of tear gas grenades, arrested and sometimes killed. And while Emad’s camera focuses on the group’s legal battle against the constructors who occupy their land, it’s a fight taken up by Israelis and international protesters alike. In fact, Bil’in becomes the poster-boy village for grass-roots resistance, with politicians flocking like moths to the latest symbol of popular courage.
It’s an unending siege – the illegal land grab facilitated through legal loopholes as one trailer after another is furtively deposited on the Palestinian side to become the corner stone from which towering apartment blocks are built. Settlers are prohibited by law from moving in, but space-pressed Orthodox Jews flock there all the same. And so long as the mezuzah is hung, ownership is staked, at least symbolically, the land taken. It’s a dirty war too, of Israeli Special Branch infiltration, of bitter reprisals as centuries old olive trees are burnt to cinders, and of tragic inurement as veiled Muslim women hang washing out to the sound of gunfire. As hate and anger rise, the demonstrators are increasingly ready to lay down their lives for the land. And it’s a reluctant fundamentalism with dire consequences, as Daba is shot in the leg and Phil killed. The inequality of the fight leads to an ugly impression of Israeli violence and Palestinian passive resistance, as tear-gas grenades are fired, boys shot at by snipers, and Emad’s life only saved by his camera taking a bullet. David to the Israeli Goliath, the Palestinians do at one point retaliate, albeit only with an anonymous hail of stones when the police come with a warrant to arrest Emad, their sole witness and documenter.
Bil’in’s accidental cameraman often finds himself on the margins of political action, observing rather than participating as his elderly parents mount the car his arrested brother is taken away in. But Emad’s footage has direct political significance too, growing resistance and solidarity as it’s shown in other towns along the West Bank. Emad’s family story also echoes the recent history of Palestine; each of his four sons born in a different era – the Oslo Peace Treaty of ’95, the electional uncertainty of ’98, 2000’s Second Intifada and the land grab of 2005. But as his succession of cameras is smashed, repaired and shot, we’re privy to the unflinching psychology of bearing witness. From Five Broken Cameras’ opening sequence of static crackle, Emad’s film is an accumulation of searing moments, a montage of experiences which burn like a hot flame. The documentary reveals the Palestinians’ fate, but it’s also a testimony of memories – just as the land is razed, wounds are recorded in quick succession, to be remembered, processed and healed some time later, in peace.
There’s an undeniable degree of manipulation – either politically or cinematically staged, as one boy offers an Israeli soldier an olive branch, or as Gibreel utters his first words – wall, army, gun cartridge. A veil of secrecy is also drawn over how and why the truck Emad is driving crashes into the Israeli barrier, the truth sometimes obfuscated or sacrificed to a greater purpose. But following the court battle and the legal victory as the Israeli settlement is defeated, Five Broken Cameras is above all a political tool, raising global awareness and fighting back with non-violent means. Yet it’s a hollow victory, for as one barrier is dismantled, another concrete wall springs up two hundred metres further on. For those living in the West Bank, walls amass like wounds. And scar upon scar, it’s possible to forget but not to mend. And that’s the curious beauty of Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Five Broken Cameras – a cathartic, cinematic space beyond borders in which to both remember and heal.
Five Broken Cameras is released on 19th October 2012 in the UK