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Uncensored glimpses of reality and humanity in Five Broken Cameras

Oscar-nominated Palestinian filmmaker, Emad Burnat, his wife Soraya and son

Sympathy, apathy and the human urge to live are among the emotions experienced when watching the Academy Award-nominated Palestinian documentary Five Broken Cameras. The film adopts such unadorned realism that viewers are left not with fervent enthusiasm normally associated with matters related to Palestine but with more than a few things to think about.

There was no grand heroism in the film. It simply chronicles the daily struggles of the ordinary people in the West Bank village of Bil`in affected by the Israeli occupation of their country and trying to make sense of their lives. These scenes may have become all too familiar for some viewers and so were received by some degree of apathy. Yet the human side to the film succeeds in arousing deeper feelings and understanding of this intricate situation.

The narrator and co-director, Emad Burnat – who was joined by Guy Davidi as co-director and producer – adopts photography as a hobby and a way to contribute to the protests against a barbed-wire barrier and wall-to-be in his home village. Yet his decision to shoot endlessly causes him to choose between continuing to film or physically helping his fellow protesters, sometimes his own brother, as they are arrested. And although the camera gave him a sense of protection, and actually saved his life once by taking a bullet, he still faced injuries and arrest thanks to his insistence on filming Israeli soldiers’ and settlers’ transgressions, not to mention his wife’s appeals to stop what he’s doing.

Emad chronicles the story of his village through three prisms. One is the camera, or rather the five cameras that each recorded a phase of their life and struggles and was broken at the height of the protests. The accounts of his children growing up in these circumstances, the second prism, also present some of the most human and sympathetic moments of the documentary. The third prism is his friends and fellow strugglers, characters who leave an imprint on the village children and spread hope among people with their small, resilient, optimistic hints.

There were a few highly dramatic moments in the film. It was heartrending, for example, to see the one-year old Gibreel, Emad’s youngest child, say the words “jidar” (barrier) and “mattat” (cartridge) among his first words. The scene where “Elpheel”, the thick-skinned “elephant” as people call him due to his unyielding spirit, is shot dead is one of the most intense. The final scene of the film shows Gibreel’s excitement at seeing the sea for the first time in his life at five years old and passes a note of optimism that, maybe, in the end hope floats.

The narration itself, however, was one of the most disruptive parts of the viewing experience. The monotonous voice of the narrator, added to the slow rhythm of the incidents as they played out, sometimes ambiguous connections between scenes, and the fact that visually the shots were not artistic but ordinary footage, all contributed to a sense of tedium that the audience had to admit was there.

On the other hand, this might actually be part of the film’s overall success and technique. This is, after all, the rhythm of everyday life shot and heard through the lens and voice of an ordinary Palestinian man. This is what life really looks like. It is not epic. And as the film emphasises, these are the true strugglers making small progress every day in contrast to political leaders and “symbols” who come to reap the gains and take a picture commemorating a major victory.

As with any film attempting to be neutral, Five Broken Cameras was subject to controversy on both sides of the fence. While Israel celebrated the film’s Oscar nomination, emphasising the partly-Israeli production team, some voices in the country called for some soul-searching, not to reconsider the transgressions recorded by the film but to reconsider Israel’s growing tendency to create works of art that “stimulate criticism”.

A discussion that followed the film at the viewing in Cairo was also enlightening about how an Arab audience receives it. A debate started about whether the film promoted normalisation towards the Israeli occupation or resistance against it; this is a critical point, especially for the generation of Egyptians which lived through the wars with Israel.

For some, it was strange that the film depicted Israelis and Palestinians cooperating and living peacefully side by side. Yisrael gives Emad an old camera when one of Emad’s is broken and some Israelis join the village people in their protests. Humanly and historically speaking, this is totally valid. Jews lived peacefully alongside Palestinians and other Arabs prior to the Balfour Declaration in Palestine and in different parts of the Arab world for centuries. The idea only seems utopian when placed against a background of an over-powerful, race-specific state trying to squash an indigenous population.

At this point, a statement made by the film in its different stages is crystallised: the human side wins out despite all of the other circumstances; people simply go on with their lives as normally as possible because they have no other option.

In the film, Emad crashes his car into the barrier and the Israelis “are forced” to take him to an Israeli hospital. Had he been treated in a Palestinian hospital, he declares, there would have been little chance of his survival considering the wounds and fractures he received. However, on the day that he is discharged, Israel launched its 2008 war on the people of the Gaza Strip. Unavoidably, recalling the Gaza war with its high death toll of civilians dispels any appreciation of Israel’s act of kindness to one man.

The film is neutral and honestly human, at least in my view. But the fact that this is a confrontation between people who only have a flag and some rocks to throw against a state with the latest military technology and hardware at its disposal, as well as international silence if not all-out support, will inevitably make the viewer sympathise with the people on the less powerful, besieged side of the fence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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