Review: Five Broken Cameras (Palestinian documentary)

Director Emad Burnat's son Gibreel, featured in the documentary.

Director Emad Burnat’s son Gibreel, featured in the documentary.

Directors: Emad Bernat, Guy Davidi

Distributed by: Kino Lorber
Release year: 2011
Review: Ian Anderson

Screened as part of Aotearoa/NZ’s first national Conference on Palestine, Five Broken Cameras portrays the resistance of a Palestinian village (Bil’in) to the expansion of Israel’s Separation Wall and settlements. Strictly the wall is illegal in international law, and the settlement expansions are dubious even in Israeli law however  no amount of paper resolutions will stop the advance of colonisation. Only popular resistance can slow, and ultimately stop, this monster.

The film’s narrative is structured around co-director Emad Burnat’s titular five broken cameras, home video cameras. Emad uses these cameras to capture both the resistance of his own community, and the brutality of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF)  which destroys both the hardware and the people which records them. Given the level of access the cameras have, it’s apparent that editors Guy Davidi and Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot used other footage to flesh the narrative out; five additional photographers are credited.

These cameras document an intensely personal and political story: the  story of Emad and his community in Bil’in. Focusing on this community’s experience as part of the wider Palestinian struggle, the film largely leaves macro-level political questions of statehood and the nature of Israel to the audience. Surrounded by soldiers, military vehicles and Caterpillar bulldozers, the men of this community march down to the encroaching wall each week, joined at times by international activists. At home, Emad’s wife Soraya Burnat soldiers on despite the constant threat to herself and her family. Bil’in’s resilience in the face of an expanding military machine embodies the slogan “resistance is existence.”

The film also reflects on forms of resistance. Bil’in’s resistance is largely guided by principles of non-violent civil disobedience. Palestinian youth throwing rocks pales  in comparison to the US-funded military machine which has faced them since birth. At one point, Emad’s narration reflects, “It’s hard to maintain non-violent principles when you’re surrounded by death.” After another Palestinian death, Emad’s son Gibreel asks why he does not stab an IDF soldier, and Emad responds that they would shoot him. Although taking a non-violent tactical position, this is a far cry from the liberal Western humanitarianism which moralistically treats only certain forms of resistance as legitimate.

The film was co-directed by a Palestinian (Emad Burnat) and an Israeli (Guy Davidi). Their collaboration has caused controversy, with the Israeli embassy in the US claiming it as an Israeli film, and the directors stating that it is “first and foremost a Palestinian film.” Norman Finkelstein, a critic of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) of Israel, has criticised the BDS campaign for hypocrisy in not boycotting the film. However, the film actually does not meet the campaign’s criteria for a cultural boycott, because it did not receive direct funding from the Israeli state and Israeli co-director Guy Davidi is critical of the occupation.

In fact, this is an exemplary case of cross-cultural work to challenge colonisation and support resistance. It is not enough, but it’s well worth seeing.

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