Emad Burnat, director of 5 Broken Cameras, speaks to MEMO: “I tell Israeli activists they should work inside Israeli society and not just come to our village.”
“Don’t worry if you don’t have money for the CDs,” says Emad Burnat, waving towards a pile of signed copies of 5 Broken Cameras. “It’s more important that you show your friends the film so they see what’s happening in Palestine.” Speaking after a screening organised by the International State Crime Initiative, Burnat’s insistence the audience take the film home affirms one of its key aims: exposure to the cause.
“It [the film] became the symbol of the struggle in the West Bank and Palestine and after making 5 Broken Cameras, my film, there are millions of people around the world who know about the village and the Palestinian issue,” he told me earlier that day. “I think it’s very important to educate people by showing them films about real life there. And the truth.”
Wearing a dark grey suit, tanned with greying hair swept back, Burnat looks more like a movie star than a director. His film, 5 Broken Cameras, is a first-hand account of popular resistance against the Israeli occupation in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank. The documentary is broken down into five chapters, signposted by the destruction of Burnat’s five cameras. He has described his camera as a “close friend” and his “weapon” which is particularly useful in Israeli courts.
When Burnat bought his first camera he did so with the intention of filming his newborn son Gibreel. But as the protests developed outside his family home, tension mounted inside and the footage captures both. Gibreel is a central character and the viewer learns much about the struggle through his eyes.
Now the film is completed, Burnat says his four sons have watched the film many times. While it was being made, he says, it had a strong impact on him and his family: “When you go out to film and you have to focus on the family and on the camera and on the struggle and what’s going on in the village and there are many pressures on you it’s not easy to continue like this, life is very difficult.”
“It was also very difficult for my kids because sometimes when I go to film they [the Israeli army] break my camera or they shoot me. When they arrest me I go to jail and I’m far from the family. So for them it’s more difficult to live without a father or someone who will take care of them. So yeah, when you have a purpose or are doing this for a reason you have to pay the price, always. You know that there is a price and many times I was very close to being killed by soldiers.”
Burnat and his family are traditionally olive farmers. An early scene in the documentary depicts a surveyor sent by the Israeli authorities to mark out land where the wall will be built. It will cut through Burnat’s olive groves and take more than 55 per cent of his land. Yet, despite repeated attempts to wear him down, Burnat says he will never lose his connection to his home.
“We will always be related to our land and our trees because the olive tree is not just a tree to us it is the symbol of our country, Palestine. It is not just for feeding us. We respect and we love the olive trees because we feel that our relationship with our land is the olive trees.”
It was when this land was taken away and the olive trees destroyed that villagers started to fight back through the popular resistance that Bil’in is now known for. Media are drawn to the village thanks to the creative ideas demonstrators have employed to generate interest. Musicians have played at their marches and activists have chained themselves to the wall. Burnat and his friends moved a trailer like those used by settlers to earmark land onto the other side of the wall with “Bil’in” written on it, only to have it removed swiftly by soldiers back to the Palestinian side.
Still, not everybody who visits Bil’in does so with integrity. Many politicians, says Burnat, use the struggle for their own ends: “They come to talk to the cameras and then leave.”
Guy Davidi, co-director of the film, is an Israeli activist who came to take part in the protests. Burnat called Davidi towards the end of the project to see if he would help with the editing and they worked together at his house in Bil’in. They ended up with a rough cut before a French editor added the final touches in the last two months.
“I didn’t want this because he’s Israeli or to collaborate with an Israeli, that’s not the reason why I called him or why I worked with him – it’s because I know him, he’s an Israeli activist and he came to the village sometimes to participate and to support. They believe in our rights to live and to get our freedom. So I called him as a friend, not as a Palestinian-Israeli collaboration.”
At the screening, Burnat adds that Israeli activists are not growing in number, a worrying prospect for a country that is already to the extreme right. “I tell Israeli activists they should work inside Israeli society and not just come to our village,” he says.
Burnat still lives in the same house he edited 5 Broken Cameras in. The film may be known worldwide as the first Palestinian documentary to be nominated for an Oscar, and Gibreel may have been the first Palestinian kid to walk on the red carpet, but its success in the box office is not reflected in the revenue he brings home. “If this film was fiction or a film not related to conflict or to Palestine or to the political situation it might have been more successful on the business side,” he says.
In early 2013, Burnat, his wife and son Gibreel were stopped at Los Angeles airport on their way to attend the Oscars. Customs officers declared he could go no further without producing the correct documents. “Maybe they thought I was lying or something because I’m Palestinian and an Oscar nominee. It was strange for them.”
Burnat texted filmmaker Michael Moore who had arranged a welcome dinner for him to explain the situation. Moore then tweeted what had happened to thousands of his fans and eventually officials released Burnat and his family. The story was in American papers for weeks and that attracted a lot of attention and publicity for the film, he says.
Since the film was released, the wall has been moved away from Burnat’s village and closer to the settlements, freeing up some of the land in what has been a mini-victory for the residents of Bil’in. Other than this, the film hasn’t brought about concrete changes on the ground, says Burnat, because it has been eclipsed by other stories from across the globe. “Now people are talking about ISIS,” he explains.
Burnat thinks that more people should participate in BDS, with a focus on the biggest companies in Israel. “It’s not the solution to free Palestine, but it’s one of the pressures that can be used on the Israeli state.” So what, then, is the solution?
“We don’t know the solution. Many people ask this question. We’ve been struggling for the last 60, 65 years to get independence and freedom but since the Palestinian Authority came to Palestine they have negotiated their situation with the Israelis and every year they say the next year there is going to be a Palestinian state and a solution. But it’s been 20 years and the situation is getting worse every day and every week and every year.”
What Palestine needs, says Burnat, is an end to the occupation. To do this they need help from the international community. Neither the United Nations, nor the International Criminal Court is doing anything though they have the power to bring about a solution. Palestinians themselves have nothing. “Palestinians are the only people in the world still living under occupation,” he adds.
Later, at the screening, one lady asks if the arrest of Palestinian children is a common occurrence in the occupied territories; another inquires about the fairness of the Israeli judicial system, presumably shocked by the violence carried out – with impunity – against protestors which is highlighted in the film. One measure of 5 Broken Camera‘s success is that it has attracted an audience beyond ardent Palestinian supporters; it is an important story, told well.