In 2005, a man named Emad Burnat bought a camera in celebration of, and to document, the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel. This is a common enough occurrence; what’s uncommon is that Burnat uses that camera, and five others like it, to observe the growth of his son but also the erection of a separation barrier that is built in his village of Bil’in. He’s a Palestinian and an Israeli settlement is seeping over into his village, complete with the intrusive barrier. Burnat, a farmer whose interest in cinematography is as an amateur, deftly captures Bil’in’s non-violent resistance to the encroachment of their territory, putting himself (and certainly his cameras) in harm’s way to do so.
This is the premise for 5 Broken Cameras (2012), an engrossing documentary directed by Burnat and Guy Davidi, which consists completely of Burnat’s footage taken over the course of five years and through the destruction of five cameras. Burnat displays the busted camcorders, which appear to have been smashed with tools, as a badge of honor; this is what he was risking to document an injustice. The footage is remarkably intelligible and stable (perhaps farmer Burnat is in the wrong business; with his acumen he could make a good cameraman or even a surgeon), and we see scene after scene of tension, arrests and violence as the Palestinian villagers clash with their occupiers. These anxious moments are intercut with standard family movie fare of children’s birthday parties and the usual milestones that zealous parents like to capture. This juxtaposition creates a heartbreaking tableau of what Western audiences will recognize as normalcy pitted against unthinkable daily dangers.
The Israel-Palestine situation is an impossible one and 5 Broken Cameras isn’t out to solve it. It’s less about this specific situation (the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis in the movie is certainly unsympathetic, but the movie doesn’t even acknowledge the reasons the Israelis might feel such extreme authority or separation barriers are necessary) and is more about the effects of a colonization of families and generations. The film’s message is not about the danger that Burnat went through (although that certainly comes across) but about the danger that Gibreel, his three siblings and the rest of the Bil’in youth are in as they have their innocence taken away watching their friends, relatives and parents beaten, arrested or killed. That anger will have to metastasize somewhere. There’s a wrenching scene near the end when Burnat and Gibreel are working on a car together: Well, Burnat is working anyway; Gibreel, all of five years old, is mainly handing tools to his father. This is a time-honored and familiar sight of father and son; less familiar is the topic of conversation, in which Gibreel suggests that his father go at the Israeli guards with a knife, much to his father’s heartbreak. 5 Broken Cameras is really about the quick and lasting theft of humanity among the occupied.
Because it’s told exclusively through the footage of an amateur met with resistance, the movie is inevitably crude and fragmentary, but it has some of the same immediate power of How to Survive a Plague (2012), a documentary that was also mainly composed of nonprofessional camcorder footage (though its gaps were filled in by interviews with the subjects). There’s an organic and living feeling to 5 Broken Cameras: We’re being shown an event, not told about it, and Burnat’s pride in having captured this material is palpable and infectious. He’s glad to have made it, even if he would preferred not to have had to. What the movie does is make an often faceless conflict personable, and we are treated, for lack of a better word, to the practical life of the politically oppressed. Burnat’s wife is more concerned for her husband than for his art and begs him not to shoot anymore footage, extolling him to see, after a handful of destroyed camcorders, the writing on the separation wall, as it were. What good will important and powerful footage be to her if the person taking it is arrested or, worse, ends up like the busted cameras?
5 Broken Cameras is a great testament to the insistence of one man to capture what’s happening to him and his family, and to that end it becomes a damning document against occupation of any kind. We worry about little Gibreel, who by his fifth birthday has already seen too much. Though the movie offers no prescriptions for the political situation that produced it (how could it?), it stands as an affirmation against it just the same. Perhaps the most hopeful thing about the film is not even in the film. Burnat, after taking the footage and proposing a film that clearly argues for an independent Palestinian state, collaborated with Davidi, who edited and wrote 5 Broken Cameras, who is Israeli. Their work, were it to inspire other partnerships, might save Gibreel and others like him from a life of anger and violence.