It doesn’t take long at all for the personal and the political to merge seamlessly in 5 Broken Cameras, an immediately involving and moving portrait of the Palestinian troubles through the eyes of one of the film’s co-directors, Emad Burnat. A lifelong resident of the small village of Bil’in, Burnat quickly went from being a man of the soil to a man with a movie camera in 2005, just as his fourth son, Gibreel, was born in his small West Bank village and has continued to film the struggles of his village against the settlers—a word used to refer to nearly all Israeli private citizens who occupy disputed territory.
Spanning from the birth of Gibreel to the end of 2010, 5 Broken Camera is made up almost entirely of footage shot by Mr. Burnat, which was then edited by Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker and film professor who’s credited as co-director as well as editor. What emerges through their partnership is a chronology of tragedy and endurance, at once the story of the gradual development of a village full of indivertible activists, the turmoil and horror surrounding the construction of the barrier that separates Bil’in from the settlers, and a treatise on the importance of the camera and visual documentation in modern protest.
Divided into five segments corresponding to each new camera Burnat buys, borrows, or receives as a gift since 2005, the film is nonetheless fluid and not ignorant to the obsessive, even corruptive nature of documentation. Late in the film, after Burnat has recuperated from crashing his car into the barrier, an act that Burnat suggests was in response to the burning of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli soldiers and settles, his wife, Soraya, expresses her exhaustion with her hubby’s insatiable need to film. More footage of Soraya’s reactions to the camera and the surrounding melee would have perhaps made for a fuller portrait, but even Burnat, whose footage has appeared on Al-Jazeera, is quick to admit the dangers of his chosen tool of non-violent protest. “I feel like the camera protects me, but it’s an illusion,” he says, which is a bit of a fib, seeing as the cameras do indeed take bullets and canisters that might have killed him.
Still, the camera Burnat wields like a placard fills a crucial role in the communal protests, and it captures wrenching visions of unjustifiable brutality toward Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Burnat’s story, with his son and his camera, is also the story of his neighbors and family. Adeeb, a furious and fearless farmer who’s shot by a teargas canister and jailed twice; Daba, a smiling, cheerful man who’s captured and shot in the leg for supposedly throwing rocks at armed and shielded soldiers; Eyad, Riyad, Khaled and Jafar, Burnat’s brothers who are all jailed at some point in the film; Phil, the town’s lovable giant and sensible leader of the protests, who’s shot and killed right in front of Burnat’s lens by Israeli soldiers.
Burnat captures a close-up of a young boy’s corpse, a casualty of the Israeli soldiers’ raids, with his eyes still open, but even this all too familiar image of devastation doesn’t shake the citizens of Bel’in and the surrounding villages the way Phil’s sudden murder does. In a chilling, prophetic scene, Gibreel, only four-years-old, wishes death on the soldiers who killed his friend Phil (nicknamed “The Elephant”). It’s not the first grievance that has lacerated the boy, but it’s obviously the first one that has broken him and awoken a dormant outrage. But Gibreel is still able to greet his first trip to the sea in Tel Aviv and the big cake on his fifth birthday with tremendous exuberance. An essential work both on filmmaking and political activism, 5 Broken Cameras provides a birdsong of perseverance in the face of irrational violence, immense historic anger, and grim, seemingly insurmountable realities.