Like few other media, film can capture the fragility of life and the pain of its loss. It also has the ability to more viscerally capture instances in which that loss results from injustice and oppression. Few recent films have done this as powerfully as one of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries, 5 Broken Cameras.
Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi and edited by Davidi and Veronique La Goard-Segot, the film is composed, primarily, of footage that Burnat shot on five digital cameras while documenting his experiences on the Israeli/Palestinian border. Emad participates in countless non-violent protests and marches against encroaching Israeli occupation near his village of Bil’in. Israelis are removing olive trees (a source of food and income for these Palestinians) and erecting a fence on their land. Armed with flags, musical instruments, signs, and, of course, cameras, the protestors are met with tear gas and machine guns. While the group marches for years enduring arrest and abuse, Emad does conclude his documentary with a minor, but potentially hollow, victory.
Several critics have argued that 5 Broken Cameras won’t necessarily move the needle or sway people’s opinion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This might be true, but I find it hard to believe that people could leave this film without greater sympathy for the Palestinians…or at least those with whom Emad lived and worked. With his cameras, Emad captures instances of horrific brutality on the part of the Israelis toward the Palestinians…they beat them, shoot them, and gas them. That some Israeli activists support these Palestinian protests makes no difference as armed forces fire indiscriminately into the crowds and, in one instance, injure a fellow Israeli. In one of the most tragic scenes, Emad captures the shooting and subsequent death of one of the most vocal and beloved protest leaders.
Of course, we must also watch 5 Broken Cameras with an awareness of the fact that not all Palestinian (re)actions have been non-violent, even though this documentary reveals that some groups are pursuing alternate means for change. Yet with the destruction of each camera, Emad begins to despair that their protests and marches will never achieve anything of significance. Moreover, he fears that his children will grow angry and, in turn, violent. It will be difficult to view any potential violent acts on their part as nothing more than a return of the violence that has been enacted upon them and their friends. As a result, the cycle of violence will spin further downward and make breaking it all the more difficult.
As A. O. Scott has pointed out 5 Broken Cameras is also “a visual essay in autobiography and, as such, a modest, rigorous and moving work of art” and that “even in the midst of that [political] crisis, it is more than just politics that needs to be seen and understood.” Emad’s work is an intimate account of one individual’s experience of this conflict and, as such, puts a troubling human face on it. It’s also an example of courage in the face of danger and the prophetic potential of filmmaking when individuals dare to put down the gun and pick up the camera to document and expose the atrocities that they endure at the hands of oppressive forces. At a time of despair in his village, Emad gathers folks together to look at some of his footage in an effort to solidify them and encourage them to remain strong. Hopefully viewers of 5 Broken Cameras will be similarly moved to non-violently work for a just resolution to this ongoing conflict.
5 Broken Cameras (94 mins.) is streaming on Netflix and contains disturbing scenes of violence.