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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Five Broken Cameras

a film by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
at Film Forum, New York

"Five Broken Cameras," a new documentary film from the occupied west bank, is less about the Arab-Israeli conflict than the Heisenberg effect.  That's a concept from physics, that the very act of observing alters the thing being observed.  Film-makers know the effect increases dramatically when the subject is human and the observing is done with a camera.  And when the film is  intended as advocacy or propaganda, the effect goes off the charts. 

Don’t get me wrong:  the Israeli-Arab conflict on the west bank is real, and bloody, and tragic.  And I agree with the film-makers’ protest against Israel’s settlement policy.  But much of what happens in the film is generated not by the conflict itself but the presence of the cameras, including the five of the title.  These are supplied by Israeli peace activists to a Palestinian west bank resident, each camera subsequently shot up or smashed by the Israeli Defense Forces.  The cameraman, Emad Burnat, serves as the narrator of the film, directed by Israeli Guy Davidi. 


The setting is a dusty farming village of Bil’in, just three miles from the Israeli border and next to a new Israeli settlement – a large complex of modern apartment buildings, populated by Orthodox Israeli Jews who want nothing to do with their neighbors in Bil’in.  The Israeli military is in between, supervising the construction of their security fence, which runs through the orchards of the Arab villagers.  It’s a nasty project – bulldozing olive trees to make way for a barbed-wire barrier.   

The action centers on weekly protests staged at the fence by the villagers, supported by their Israeli friends, foreign activists, and the film-makers.  The cameras focus on a couple of flamboyant Palestinian men, who seem to enjoy parading nose-to-nose with the line of Israeli troops, shouting slogans:  you’re on our land, you have no hearts, etc.  Also on hand are many Palestinian boys, mostly teenagers but some as young as three.  One of them is the youngest son of our Arab cameraman.  Little Gibreel’s whole life seems to be altered by the making of this film; he becomes the poster boy for Arab victims of the occupation, and the Israeli activists who want peace.  In the most blatant piece of staged business, this tiny kid is given an olive branch and told to walk across the barrier road and hand it to an Israeli soldier.  The soldier takes it, with no comment. 

The plot is simple:  the film-makers want to show the ugliness and violence of Israel’s settlement policy.  The soldiers and the settlers don’t want them to.  The protesters march and lie down at the fence, with occasional forays onto the settler side.   The soldiers disperse them with endless volleys of tear-gas grenades, plus occasional bullets.  Soldiers arrest demonstrators and cart them off to undisclosed locations; they return weeks later, apparently unharmed.  Videographers jockey for position on the ground, Israeli snipers shoot their cameras.  Vultures circle overhead, waiting for somebody to die.   

Most of the action, and nearly all the dialogue, looks staged for the film.  But there are a few unplanned episodes that bring home the reality of the underlying conflict.   From a hidden vantage point, a camera catches Israeli soldiers methodically shooting a prisoner in the leg.   In another scene, an Israeli jeep is caught in a vicious crossfire of rocks and bricks, makes a desperate U-turn and peals out of the village with its windshield smashed.

Eventually, one of the flamboyant Palestinians finds a bullet and does die.  The whole village comes out to mourn.  Another protester lies down in the road and begs to be shot, too.  The soldiers ignore him. 
A bizarre subplot emerges:  ­­­­­­­­Burnat somehow crashes his vehicle into the fence, and comes away with a bloody face and undisclosed injuries.    He says he would probably die if he went to a Palestinian hospital.  So his friends, with apparent co-operation of the military, take him to an Israeli hospital in Tel Aviv, where he receives state-of-the art medical care.  

By the end of the movie, all parties seemed weary of their roles.  In the last sequence, Burnat takes some of his sons with him on a drive to  Tel Aviv to have his stitches removed.   The following dialogue ensues in the car, and I give the film-makers credit for leaving it in:   

Father:   Gibreel, do you want to see the sea? 
Son:   Daddy, leave me alone. 
Father:   Say yes.
Son:   OK, yes.  

The movie ends with Burnat’s sons romping in the waves, at the beach in Tel Aviv.  This may be intended as an image of the pleasures of peace.  But it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind about anything.

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips
Photo courtesy Kino Lorber Inc.