Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s intimate, handmade documentary Five Broken Cameras provides a disturbing reminder of the futility of finding peace in the Israeli/Palestine conflict. It’s probably not something that you need to be reminded of given it’s undeniably prominent place in world politics, but Burnat and Davidi’s first person account is filled with enough disturbing and frustrating images to elicit all new rounds of rage over the conflict. It’s a little one sided in terms of the debate, yet the experience is so personal, frustrating, and enlightening that it demands attention. This is one of those movies that will kick you out of the theatre angry and confused rather than basking in a light entertainment glow. Not exactly the standard summer movie reaction, but something we all need to feel every now and then.
What distinguishes Five Broken Cameras from other documentaries on the topic is the candid and deeply personal nature of the footage the filmmakers capture. Less an attempt at provocation by agit-prop filmmakers and more of a video diary, the project had humble origins that never would have suggested a wide international release. The film is an account of five years in the life of a Burnat, a Palestinian farmer whose hometown of Bil’in is overtaken by Israeli settlements that have gradually transformed the small farming community into a sea of highrise apartment complexes. It happened just as Burnat’s son was born and he decided to try his hand at create a meaningful document of his tense living environment during a time of personal change. The title refers to the fact that over the course of the shooting, five of Burnat’s cameras were destroyed as a result of everything from car crashes to fights with soldiers as he struggled to create a ground-level low-fi document of his tumultuous life.
Enraged by the destruction of olive groves, the farmers began protests against the development and inevitably the army got involved. Cement barriers were constructed, smoke bombs launched, children injured or arrested, protesters killed, and Burnat was there to capture it all sacrificing his personal safety and his cameras (obviously) in the process. Eventually some of the land was returned to the villagers and the demonstrations were called off, but not before four years of ugly headbutting that Burnat captures with unflinching honesty. Throughout the process, the filmmaker also films his home and family life and fills in the gaps in the narrative with thoughtful, at times almost poetic narration written years later. Davidi (an Israeli) came into the project later on as an outsider from the other side of the political spectrum and together they edited down hundreds of hours of footage into this searing, disturbing feature.
It might sound a bit odd to praise the technical achievements of such a clearly rough n’ tumble project, but there’s no denying Burnat’s filmmaking eye grows and improves over the course of shooting. Some images are remarkable evocative and burn into the brain. Though there’s an element to which the film falls into a specific brand of video diary filmmaking that’s become increasingly common (particularly out of third world countries), there’s elegance to the craft of Five Broken Cameras that elevates it above most films of this kind. Burnat constantly captures other cameras filming the same protests and fights alongside him, often with more professional equipment. Yet it’s testament to what he accomplished in his film that saw it get release when so many of the other simultaneously filming documentaries disappeared.
There’s nothing in Five Broken Cameras to suggest and end or solution to this particular conflict. If anything the violence, aggression, and misunderstandings that Burnat capture show how impossible it is to even consider a conclusion at this point. However, if there is to be a positive pulled out of the film, it’s that Burnat did edit and craft his footage with Davidi. They were born in opposition, yet clearly share a healthy fear and disgust for the constant fighting. Their politics or religions may never line up, but at least they can agree that the conflict does nothing but damage. The collaboration created an undeniably powerful and moving film that will inevitably do little to change the seemingly never ending issues, but at least brought the two sides together briefly for 90 minutes of understanding. It’s not much, but it’s something and it created a pretty fascinating film.