Film review: 5 broken cameras

Hot Docs Trailers 2012: 5 BROKEN CAMERAS


4 March 2013. A World to Win News Service. 5 Broken Cameras, the first Palestinian documentary nominated for an Oscar, gives an overwhelming depiction of the injustice and brutality on a massive scale against the residents of a village called Bilin in the West Bank. Israeli settlers exude entitlement as they move into new apartments on the hilltops surrounding Bilin, settlements on land stolen from Belin farmers. Not only are Belin’s inhabitants viciously assaulted and oppressed but even the olive trees that are supposedly left to them are burned by brazen settlers or uprooted by the army using armoured construction machinery.

Starting in 2005 and filming over a period of five years with a succession of five cameras destroyed one after another by Israeli soldiers or settlers, Emad Burnat, a farmer turned amateur filmmaker, documented the protests against the land seizures by the Israeli government and the wall under construction that occupies and will separate them from their farmland. Despite great personal risk, he continued filming from a sense of moral obligation to his people and the desire to make the world aware of the struggle to save their land. In 2009 Burnat enlisted the aid of Israeli activist and filmmaker Guy Davidi to help make the film.

The film won many prizes worldwide, in Europe and in the U.S. at the Sundance Film Festival. That this documentary did not win an Oscar is not surprising in a climate where the reactionary feature film Argo received the award for the best picture of the year. Despite having an official invitation to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, when Emad Burnat, his wife and youngest son Gibreel landed in Los Angeles, they were detained and almost deported by U.S. immigration officials until filmmaker Michael Moore intervened and called in Academy lawyers.

The film is told in five episodes, each one corresponding to the life span of a camera. The growth over five years of his newborn son Gibreel is juxtaposed with the village struggle lead by Emad’s two best friends. Both are determined and all are brave. Gradually we come to understand the complex thinking of many village residents as they evolve through this experience. We get to know a number of them quite well. This film is not just a collection of footage; it has a powerful dramatic rhythm and character development.


One of the villagers, Phil, a tall man affectionately called the elephant by the children, uses humour to keep up the morale and unity of the resisting villagers in the face of humiliations, tear gas and rubber and live bullets. He often emphasis that these particular protests are non-violent and appeals to the Israeli soldiers on the basis of their humanity. “We are all cousins,” he tells them.


Yet the soldiers relentless carry out orders in the fulfilment of an Israeli strategy designed to wear down the villagers’ will to resist through attrition – the breaking of bones and faces, the destruction of homes, and from time to time the taking of lives. The army does not seek to kill everyone, but to demonstrate that the price for refusing to submit is higher than anyone can stand to pay. Phil’s non-violence and attempts to find common ground with the soldiers does not change that.


The struggle affects Emad’s son Gibreel greatly. As a toddler, some of his first words are army, fence and bullet. Despite his deep concern for Gibreel’s safety, Emad says the best way to protect his son is for him to understand how the world really is and the vulnerability of human lives. When one of Gibreel’s favourite adults is killed by the soldiers, he is deeply disturbed and asks his father why the soldiers act the way they do, and especially, what can be done about it. The audience can’t help asking  themselves the same question.


In 5 Broken Cameras, you witness the soldiers coming to the village in the night and arresting 12 and 13 year-olds and hauling them off to prison amid protests from the families and international activists who support their struggle, including some Israelis. During the protests, one by one each of Emad’s brothers are arrested. Then one evening the soldiers come for Emad. They tell him to stop filming, that he is in a closed military area. That closed military area, he replies, is his own home. He goes to prison for three weeks and is put under house arrest in another building for two months. 
Towards the end of the film, Emad is almost killed in a truck accident and survives because he is treated in an Israeli hospital. For him, this treatment is not a favour but a reminder that under the occupation the Palestinians have almost nothing of their own, not even good medical facilities. When he returns home after a long recuperation, his wife Saroya (unfortunately the only woman in the film whose character is developed) is concerned that he will be killed and asks him to give up filming and stay with her and their four children. But he cannot stop. His filming is the act of resistance that allows him to heal the wounds of oppression, humiliation and injustice that he and other Palestinians endure daily throughout their lives under Israeli occupation.


When you see what the Palestinians are up against, you can understand why struggle goes up and down and why the question of how their oppression could be ended is so important. It’s not surprising that some people get discouraged. What’s more impressive is that this discouragement is so often overcome. You see how the Israelis themselves propel Palestinians into action against them again and  again.


Watching the film you are filled with the feeling that all of Palestine is a prison. You see the birds soaring in the sky in tremendous liberty. But on the ground every move by the Palestinians is confined in an ever more constricted space. Then in the course of resistance you are arrested and taken to an another restricted space – a prison within a prison.


There are almost 5,000 Palestinians in prison right now. About twenty percent of the population have been imprisoned since 1967, some 600,000 held for a week or more, which means that most families have been affected. Many prisoners are never charged. An Israeli military court can order suspects detained indefinitely under a procedure called administrative detention, subject to renewal every six months, without trial. Some prisoners are children.


In late February hundreds of Palestinian youth and others clashed with Israeli soldiers in the climax of a months-long wave of demonstrations in support of four prisoners on hunger strike. The prisoners demanded that they be either put on trial or released. On one day, nine Palestinians were injured, one critically, when settlers fired live rounds in clashes near Nablus. As two hunger strikers neared death, the action was called off, at least temporarily,


Arafat Jaradat, a 30 year old father of two children, was arrested for allegedly throwing stones at an Israeli military vehicle. After five days in prison he died under suspicious circumstances. Israeli officials claim he had a heart attack, but the Palestinian pathologist who attended the autopsy of the prisoner said his heart showed no signs of that, but there broken bones and serious bruises on Jaradat’s body.


Kameel Sabbagh, a lawyer who attended Jaradat’s last hearing, said he had advised the Israeli judge that his client had been tortured and should be examined by the prison doctor. According to Sabbagh, this did not happen. “He had serious pains in his back and other parts of his body because he was being beaten up and hanged for many long hours while he was being investigated,” Sabbagh told the Ma’an news agency. His notes from the court hearing describe his client as “extremely afraid” of returning to his cell.


With the death of Jaradat, outraged Palestinians poured again into the streets.


This is the reality in Palestine and 5 Broken Cameras is no fiction. It is a moving work of art.

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