By one of those curious coincidences that occur every now and then, I had just finished reading Raja Shehadeh’s book Palestinian Walks, when5 Broken Cameras, a superb documentary shot entirely in and around a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank by a peasant smallholder popped up in a rare Liverpool screening.
Both book and film share a similar approach to the subject of the Israeli occupation and establishment of settlements that has made Palestinians feel as if they are exiles in their own country. By that I mean that both, though naturally preoccupied with the struggle over land and national identity, approach the issue at a tangent. Raja Shehadeh come at it by way of seven walks through the landscape he loves; for Emad Burnat it’s watching how his youngest son Gibreel is shaped by growing up in a time of struggle. Gibreel was born in 2005; almost simultaneously, the Israeli Army began building a section of the Security Wall between their village and a nearby Jewish settlement. In both book and film, Palestinians reveal their profound emotions for the land that has sustained them for generations.
In the film, Emad Burnat, given his first camera to record Gibreel’s childhood, soon begins spending his days and nights recording life about him in Bil’in, the village where his family has lived for generations. The residents of Bil’in, outraged as their olive groves are bulldozed by the military and centuries-old living olive trees are set alight by Israeli settlers, decide to organize weekly protests against the building of the barrier and their exclusion from their land. Soon the villagers are gaining wider support as Israeli activists and sympathizers from other countries join the protests.
One of the Israeli activists, filmmaker Guy Davidi, became Burnat’s co-director; in an interview he explained how their collaboration began:
I came to Emad’s village, Bil’in in the beginning of the demonstration in 2005, quite early. I was already following what was going on in other villages. In Emad’s village they began to find out that the [Israeli army] was going to take their land and they started to initiate this movement. So very fast, Israeli protesters and peace activists started to go there …. After I came to the village, we all felt that it was going to be very important. There were really strong relationships between the Israeli activists and the Palestinian villagers. […]
During this period of time, I really got to know the village from the inside, and to know emotionally what it means to live under the occupation. … I had known Emad from the start. He was very important, because he was a villager who had a camera. I mean, there were hundreds of journalists from all over the world. … But Emad was the only one who stayed there during the week, after the demonstrators left. So, when soldiers came during the night or made arrests, he was the only one to film that.
At the time, he didn’t want to make a movie. He wasn’t a filmmaker, he didn’t have training. But as time went on and other films were made about the village, he began to think how long he’d been filming and how much important footage he had. He thought that he should make his own film. In 2009, he approached me and said he wanted to make a film about Bil’in. … But I wasn’t sure then. The subject was already known. … The only way we could do it, I thought, was to go through his personal experience of what happened in the village. And I discovered, as I went through his footage, that over the years he had been filming everything, including his family. [From] these images, we could create a personal story, and once Emad realized it was going to be a very new thing [showing] everything that happens in the village, and that this personal footage was necessary to make a movie, he accepted.
The footage used in the film was shot over five years, and the title refers to the five cameras that were smashed while Burnat was filming during that time. At the beginning of the film they are displayed as battered souvenirs of the struggle (top). Some cameras were hit by tear gas or bullets, or smashed by soldiers or settlers. Apart from the damage to the cameras, there were many injuries sustained by the protestors, and several deaths. Burnat himself was seriously injured on one occasion, and one camera saved his life when a soldier shot it with two bullets. The bullet is still inside the camera.
Many of these incidents are captured at close range, and the cumulative impact of these scenes is to leave the viewer with an intense, despairing sense of a desperate situation beyond rationality. But, in his narration, Burnat is more philosophical, even when his pain and anger are greatest. He focusses on how the life of his family converges with the ebb and flow of Palestinian and Israeli politics, from the relative optimism of the post-Oslo years in the early 1990s (when his first son was born) to the situation today when diplomacy and negotiation is frozen, and there is ideological retrenchment on both sides.
Like Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, Emad Burnat’s film articulates a sense of disillusion and frustration with the politics of the Palestinian leadership. If there are any heroes in the film, they aren’t the Palestinian politicians who come to the village only after the protest has spread to other towns and begins to succeed. Instead, they are Burnat’s friends, such as the ever-optimistic Bassem who loves the village kids and whom the kids admire.
It’s the men of the village who come to the fore in the story that Burnat tells (apart from his wife, we see very little of the women, except for one scene in which women refuse to allow over their threshold Israeli soldiers who are entering houses and arresting children). Three of Emad’s brothers are arrested during the confrontations, but Emad’s camera focusses particularly on two friends, both totally committed to the protests. One is the exuberant Adeeb, who risks bullets and challenges Israeli troops face to face. The other is Bassem, a cheerful giant of a man, always grinning and much loved by the children who nickname him el-Pheel, the elephant. Like Emad, both are arrested, and see members of their families go to jail. Adeeb is seriously wounded in the leg, while Bassem dies from injuries after a direct hit by a gas grenade.
The insanity of the situation is revealed in fierce footage of Israeli soldiers firing point blank at peaceful protestors, and the burning of the villagers’ olive trees by Jewish settlers. It’s also shown, in a scene of pure black comedy, when soldiers arrive at Emad’s house to arrest him and inform him that he can’t use a camera in his own home since he lives in ‘a closed military zone’.
Meanwhile, Burnat’s young son Gibreel tries to make sense of what he sees around him. Some of the earliest words he learns are ‘wall’, ‘war’ and ‘cartridge’. In his narration Burnat says he prefers not to shield his son from the rigours of the world; soon after he has filmed Gibreel watching a sheep being slaughtered by having its throat cut, Gibreel asks him, ‘Why don’t you kill the soldiers with a knife?’
Though filmed by a non-professional Palestinian, professionals were involved in the post-editing process – a fact made clear in the end credits, which also explain the confusion of earlier seeing film clearly not shot by Burnat. For example, we see shots of the protests from amidst the Israeli soldiers. Israeli activists, able to get close to the soldiers, recorded their own footage and gave it to Burnat.
Philip French wrote in his Observer review:
5 Broken Cameras is a polemical work and in no sense analytical. It presents with overwhelming power a case of injustice on a massive scale, and gives us a direct experience of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of oppression and dispossession, administered by the unyielding, stony-faced representatives of those convinced of their own righteousness. But it isn’t vindictive and has a sense of history and destiny. Much may be concealed, but what we are shown and experience is the resilient spirit of one village recorded by a single observer.
In an interview Emad Burnat explained how the protests developed and what he hoped his film would achieve:
In my village, it is not like other places. If you see the wall, it is going seven kilometers or more into the West Bank. In my village, when they started the [fence’s] construction, some of the village was taken to the Israeli side. The land was confiscated, and then they decided to make a wall between the village and the settlement. The Palestinians were very angry and they said they would not be quiet. They started to organize peaceful movements against the construction, and after five years, the fence was removed. And the Israeli government decided to build a new wall close to the settlements and further from the village. The land was returned to the villagers.
It’s not a big victory because it’s not all the land. And some people got their land back and some got nothing. It is a victory, but it is not a big victory for everyone in the village. So the people want to continue the resistance against the new wall.
The most important [thing] was to reach the people outside. Because most people don’t know what’s happening in Palestine. They hear about it and see it on the news, but they don’t know the truth. To use the footage and the personal story, and to put all of this in one film is very touching and very strong.
5 Broken Cameras is a deeply troubling film to watch, despite Burnat’s philosophical narration and the way that his camera seeks out the positive. For example, there is a moment in his brother’s garden, when Burnat asks why the chickens always roost in a tree when they have a coop. ‘They want to enjoy their freedom’, his brother says simply, ‘ Just like us’.
At the end of the film, Burnat returns to the hospital in Tel Aviv where he has been treated following severe injuries incurred during one of the protests (the film previously made clear that Israeli soldiers tending his wounds after the accident and seeing their severity, ordered him to be rushed to an Israeli hospital). Burnat is filmed having stitches removed before taking his children on a rare visit to the sea. Burnat’s last words on the soundtrack are: ‘Healing is a challenge in life. It is a victim’s sole obligation. By healing you resist oppression’.
Yet, earlier, we have heard Gibreel tell his mother as she washes dishes one day: ‘The solders came and started shooting. They were everywhere. But I wasn’t afraid’.
Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.
– from ‘Under Siege’ by Mahmoud Darwish
- Official website: with some clips for download
- In Village Palestinians See Model for Their Cause: New York Times article on the Bil’in protests
- Interview with Guy Davidi
- Interview with Emad Burnat
- Palestinian Walks: the extraordinary patience of things