The critically acclaimed documentary 5 Broken Cameras (and free Spice Root dinner) drew nearly one hundred students to Griffin Hall last Thursday night for dinner, film and discussion. Co-directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, the first-hand account of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank, sparked passionate debate among the students who remained at the event’s conclusion.
Named for the electronic carnage of Burnat’s work, 5 Broken Cameras begins when Burnat buys a camera to record the childhood of his third son, Gibreel, born in 2005. As life in Bil’in deteriorates, Burnat shifts his focus to record the relentless struggle of villagers against the illegal construction of Jewish settlements and a dividing wall through their land. Through these lenses, the film presents parallel narratives of domestic and political life.
Burnat’s camerawork is authentic and poetic. Shots of Israeli tanks unearthing the olive trees on which the villagers depend, a Palestinian child offering an olive branch to an armed Israeli soldier and circling birds in the sky are rich in symbolic meaning as well as realistic depiction. Intimate family scenes of birthday parties and bedtime stories contrast shots of protest that almost invariably end in violence. The destruction of Burnat’s cameras seems to be the least serious consequence of this violence, as 5 Broken Cameras makes explicit the resulting arrests, injuries and even deaths of peaceful Palestinian protesters.
Burnat follows the nonviolent efforts of Palestinian villagers, focusing on his brothers and friends Phil, Adeeb and Daba, against the construction of a barrier to separate an illegal Jewish settlement from Bil’in. The process cuts off Bil’in farmland and destroys Palestinian land. Themes of life’s fragility, the loss of innocence, ceaseless struggle and creative resistance define the film. 5 Broken Cameras depicts chapters in the lives of Burnat’s family and friends, divided by the losses of five cameras and continually punctuated by the pop of gunshots and gas grenades.
In chronicling Gibreel’s development from baby to understanding child, 5 Broken Cameras displays an environment that is incredibly conducive to the development of anger in each generation of Palestinians, as they face relentless hardship and loss. The film captures emotion as well as historical fact. The toll of consistent oppression is evident in Burnat’s wife, Soraya, when she increasingly demands Burnat cease his dangerous work and in protestors who smile as they are arrested at the beginning of the film but lose their grins by its end.
Burnat’s film is strikingly successful in conveying the humanity of his subjects, to Western viewers. Villagers do not seem far removed from Western culture. Adults and children celebrate the World Cup championship on television, cheering for Brazil, and wear recognizable clothing, like a t-shirt emblazoned with Hugo Chávez’s iconic image. 5 Broken Cameras effectively evokes sympathy and feelings of solidarity with the struggling protestors, highlighting their persistent creativity and cheerful attitudes. The audience cannot help but root for the Palestinians as they reveal exploitative Israeli governmental hypocrisy.
While sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, 5 Broken Cameras does not read as propaganda but an objective account of struggle from a Palestinian perspective. The film offers no suggestions or explicit blame. While it is clear that unemployment is rampant among the villagers, the film portrays no bitterness. Lending credibility and a sense of objectivity to the work, Israeli Filmmaker Davidi co-directed the film with Palestinian farmer Burnat. Burnat shot the documentary’s footage; Davidi provided funding and assisted Burnat in constructing the film’s narrative.
Moderated by Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature Mara Naaman and Abdullah Awad ’13, discussion following the screening revolved around solutions, and a lack thereof, to the Israeli-Palestinian land issue. Students also considered the role of the international community in the situation. Naaman pointed to evidence of creativity and collaboration between the Israeli and Palestinian people, despite their governmental and leadership stances. Many students remained in Griffin for over an hour after the film ended, passionately debating the future of the region.
5 Broken Cameras allowed students to experience a rarely seen perspective in the United States, without seeming forceful or bitter. This screening and discussion was an excellent opportunity to witness a great feat in both filmmaking and activism.