‘Broken Cameras’ and a fractured reality

‘Broken Cameras’ and a fractured reality

Directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian, the Sundance prize winner portrays heated demonstrations against Israel’s security barrier in West Bank town of Bil’in from the point of view of its residents

Co-director Emad Burnat with his five broken cameras. (photo credit: Kino Lorber)
Co-director Emad Burnat with his five broken cameras. (photo credit: Kino Lorber)

What would the Arab-Israeli conflict look like if Palestinians abandoned bombs and bullets? Probably something like “5 Broken Cameras,” a prize-winning documentary that opened Wednesday in New York City.

The winner of the World Documentary Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “5 Broken Cameras” follows half a decade of protests in Bil’in, a small West Bank town divided by Israel’s controversial security barrier. Never previously a flashpoint in the conflict, Bil’in attracted local — and eventually international — attention with its weekly protests against the barrier, which cut off residents from their livelihood, the nearby olive orchards they harvested annually. While confrontations between townspeople and the Israeli army could get violent, the protests were distinguished by the relative restraint of Bil’in residents, who rejected bombings, shootings and other deadly tactics.

Co-directors Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat. (photo credit: Kino Lorber)
Co-directors Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat. (photo credit: Kino Lorber)

The demonstrations also brought together Bil’in resident Emad Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, the two men behind “5 Broken Cameras.” Shot mostly by Burnat, the film records the protests from the perspective of the Palestinian cameraman, who has provided news footage both to Israel’s major TV stations and to Al-Jazeera. While the documentary ends with the rerouting of the security barrier — the result of a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court — the film is at best bittersweet, documenting the turmoil of the teargas-filled protests and the frustration of Bil’in’s residents. (The Israeli soldiers guarding the fence and dispersing the demonstrators don’t look too happy, either.)

Focused largely on the experience of Burnat and his family, the film also records the shooting death of a popular villager nicknamed Phil, as well as the serious injury sustained by another Bil’in man, known as Adeeb. Along the way, Burnat runs through the five cameras of the title, all damaged or destroyed during the chaos.

Davidi, a 33-year-old Tel Aviv resident, spoke to the Times of Israel about the film. A transcript of the interview, trimmed for continuity and length, appears below.

How did you meet Emad?  

I had a chance to live in the village for three months, which is very rare for an Israeli

I came to Bil’in just two or three months after the villagers started this movement, which I’ve been following as an Indymedia activist since 2003. I was going to the territories to do some video reports when this movement came to Bil’in, and I met Emad. He was filming already, and because he was the only cameraman who was [a resident] of the village, he became a figure in the movement. I decided very fast to make a feature-length documentary, and I had a chance to live in the village for three months, which is very rare for an Israeli. The nights were the first time that [Israeli] soldiers started to go into the village to make arrests… On those nights [another cameraman] and I filmed side by side with Emad.

Emad shot more than 700 hours of film.  How did you decide what to keep and what to cut?

That was only his material. We also used at least 300 hours of other film, so more than 1,000 hours of footage. The decision of what to choose came from the events. I wrote the script based on what happened. Some of the footage became very famous, like Phil’s death, which was shot by an Israeli painter, and when Adeeb was shot in the leg. When Emad started to film, he didn’t know it was going to be a documentary. No one anticipated that Phil would die, so any footage we found of him became very important. Most of the material is just demonstrations, but we looked for a way to connect the footage to Phil or Adeeb, looking at the narrative of the fence and the settlements to tell the story of the movement and Emad’s personal life, like the arrests of his brothers.

Did you have disagreements about what footage to use?

We had several, of course. It was a long process. It wasn’t Emad’s intention to make a personal film — it was supposed to be about Adeeb and Phil. I didn’t want to do that because there were already several films about [Phil’s death]. I wanted to make a film about Emad and the sacrifices he made, and the experience his family went through. He was accepting, but each time I wanted to make the film more personal, he wasn’t always [willing]. I knew it was important to show the moment when he was arrested, and his house arrest. He was actually hiding that footage — he had been filming it, but kept it away from me [because] he thought he looked so fragile and depressed, and it’s not an image of a hero or a fighter, and he thought that people wouldn’t like that. I thought it would create a lot of empathy for what he’s done, so we debated for long periods before he agreed to have that in the film.

I wanted to show that we’re not speaking about nonviolence in a nonviolent, idealistic environment, but in a very disturbing and fragile one

I think it was also very tough for him to use footage not from Bil’in, but from Nil’in, which was very violent. The Israelis used a lot more violence [there] than they ever used in Bil’in, and the reactions of the villagers there became a lot more violent. You don’t have the feeling of the nonviolent movement that Emad wanted to show, and I thought we had to give the background and the emotions and the rage — [to show] that when death is all around, the situation can become more violent. The [Bil’in residents] wanted this film to be the result of a nonviolent movement, to be Gandhi, but the challenge of a peaceful movement is the moments when people are dying around you. I wanted to show that we’re not speaking about nonviolence in a nonviolent, idealistic environment, but in a very disturbing and fragile one.

Israel often criticizes the Palestinians for resorting to violence rather than negotiating. Do you think Bil’in is threatening to people who make that argument?

Of course, but not just Bil’in. [The movement] is crossing all over the West Bank. In the past year, there hasn’t been a big growth of violence in the West Bank — the only movement that is growing is the nonviolent movement. People are saying that it’s because of the separation fence, but that’s a false argument. It’s because there’s an internal [nonviolent] movement in the West Bank. It might collapse, and it’s not the mainstream idea of Palestinians — the main image of the Palestinian fighter is still a fighter.

The only movement that is growing is the nonviolent movement

[The nonviolent movement] endangers Israeli right-wing politics, and the way [the right-wing] reacts to it is to use more violence and distract it, and they might succeed. The Palestinian youth have to handle their emotions… The politics of the West Bank is not violent right now. [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t have a politics of war or conflict, so violence is not being encouraged by the Palestinian Authority or by the villages. These are really good times for negotiation and for resolving the conflict because there is [restraint] on the Palestinian side.

How do you think Israel could have handled the protests differently?

First of all, they should have reacted without violence at all. [But the bigger picture] is that the fence is a step in a strategy to confiscate more land. If Israel wanted to go in the direction [of peace], it wouldn’t have built this wall, which is deepening the occupation and threatening the two-state solution. It shouldn’t have reacted [to the protests] with the army and security forces, but by speaking to the Palestinian communities and trying to solve their issues.

The politics of the state are greed — not security, but to confiscate land

But this wasn’t the strategy — the strategy was to confiscate the land. The politics of the state are greed — not security, but to confiscate land. There is a housing crisis in Israel, and they want cheap land to sell to Israeli settlers. These settlers in the film are not there for ideology, but because the housing is cheaper in the West Bank. It’s an economic thing.

I was surprised that Emad never mentions the terrorist attacks in Israel that led to the construction of the security barrier. Do you think that’s fair to leave out? Was that something you discussed?

I think that the film is obligated to have a specific point of view — what Emad experienced. We tried to stick to that. This is not a kind of journalistic work that tries to describe the politics of the region in the widest angle. We tried to show how Emad experienced life. He didn’t experience suicide bombers — they didn’t come from Bil’in, and not from the neighboring villages. There were no suicide attacks on Modi’in Illit [the neighboring settlement] during the seven or eight years that the film took place.  If there had been an issue like that, we wouldn’t have left it out… The entire nonviolent movement is completely criticizing the suicide attacks — it’s not avoiding it and saying it’s not there. The fact that the nonviolent movement exists is a strong criticism [of terrorism] from inside Palestinian society.

Do you think the protests played a role in convincing the Israeli Supreme Court to change the route of the barrier in Bil’in?

No one knows, really. It’s a very tough question. Everyone would say what he wants to say. Emad would probably say it’s the only reason, but there are always examples of decisions by the court where there weren’t any [opposition] movements, because the court has its language and approach to reality. What I do know for certain is that even after the court decision was made, the army was very reluctant to manifest this decision, and there were places where this decision [wasn’t initially carried out]. It was only in 2011 that the court’s ruling was [fully] implemented.

Is there anything else you’d like viewers to know about the film?

We wanted to make a very sincere film, without being didactic. We weren’t trying to accuse the Israelis. We were trying to show reality as Emad experienced it so people would have the ability to process these events emotionally. I wish that it won’t be categorized as another political or ideological film. There is a tendency to put [this type of] film into a category, to say it’s propaganda, which we were really struggling to avoid.

Emad's mother pleads with an Israeli soldier to release her son Khaled after he was arrested. (photo credit: Kino Lorber)
Emad's mother pleads with an Israeli soldier to release her son Khaled after he was arrested. (photo credit: Kino Lorber)
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