5 Broken Cameras, a Brutal Film about Nonviolent Protest

Still hoping for a Palestinian Spring

Just down the street from the Arab Spring but eclipsed by its fiery limelight, a modest popular movement is spreading, which hopes to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff where mutual hostilities and peace negotiations have miserably failed. Sparked by aggressive Jewish settlement and the building of an Israeli security barrier on Palestinian land in the early aughts, nonviolent resistance has taken hold in a growing number of Palestinian villages on the West Bank.

Thanks to the efforts of video activists from both sides of the conflict, the area has also, improbably, become a tiny hub of committed filmmaking. To date, at least three shoestring documentaries have charted the progress of nonviolent protest in West Bank farming communities, two of them in the beautiful but scarred terrain around the village of Bil'in, at least half of whose lands were threatened with confiscation by Israel. On the heels of Bil'in, My Love (2007) and Budrus (2010) comes 5 Broken Cameras, a shared project by self-taught Palestinian cameraman Emad Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, which opens in New York on May 30 at Film Forum, distributed by Kino Lorber. By video chat from Toronto (Davidi) and e-mail from Turkey (Burnat), the co-directors discussed the film's genesis, its guiding philosophy, how Burnat's cameras got serially smashed, and how one of those breakages saved his life.

The two met in 2005 when Davidi, a video activist with the global social-justice network Indymedia, was living in Bil'in while making Interrupted Streams, a documentary about water and power in the West Bank. Most Israeli activists come in only for demonstrations and then leave; few spend the night, let alone live in the village as Davidi did for nearly three months. Burnat had been filming for years and sold footage of protests and skirmishes with settlers and soldiers to news agencies and other filmmakers, and had posted his work on YouTube. "Emad and I were filming side by side after some arrests during the night," Davidi recalls. "It was Ramadan, the Palestinians were very angry, and the soldiers were afraid and ready to shoot. So I walked around saying, 'There are Israelis here.' In the morning, the army spokesman reported there were 40 Israelis present," he says, grinning. "There was only me."

Co-director Emad Burnat's camera stopped a bullet.
Kino Lorber
Co-director Emad Burnat's camera stopped a bullet.

Several years later, Burnat approached Davidi with the idea of making a personal film centering on two friends and fellow activists in the protests, one of whom was killed on camera. Davidi, who felt that the demonstrations had already been publicized in this way, encouraged Burnat to shape the film around his own family's experience. "Cinematically and also politically, I would be there to empower Emad's voice," he says, "which is more interesting than a dull, balanced film with an Israeli and a Palestinian."

If ever there were a place where the personal is also political every minute of every day, it's Bil'in. 5 Broken Cameras shows repeated assaults on Burnat's cameras, which were quickly replaced, some of them by Israeli activists. "I always felt protected when I held the camera," Burnat says. "And one of them saved my life when a soldier shot two bullets directly at my face. One of those bullets is still inside the lens." We see Burnat's wife, a Brazilian-born Palestinian, supporting her husband's filming until she has had enough of the danger it brings their family and yells at him to stop.

The movie is also structured around Burnat's son Jibreel, who was born during the 2005 protests and who accompanies his father to demonstrations. To Western eyes, the sight of a three-year-old deliberately taken into the line of fire (and being praised by his mother for doing so) is alarming, but both Burnat and Davidi firmly defend the policy. "The kids see the soldiers in the village and around their houses," Burnat says. "Their lives are not normal like in Europe." Davidi, who argues that the far more shielded children of another Bil'in resident became "completely traumatized" when they were finally confronted with soldiers, says: "The strategy is to prepare kids for anything. So if your daddy is going to be shot in front of your eyes, or you're being humiliated, if three of the kids from your class are arrested and taken to jail, you have to be ready and tough."

For a film about nonviolent protest, 5 Broken Cameras is often brutal. We see olive trees burned by frankly thuggish settlers who also bully protesters at peaceful demonstrations. Jibreel wants to know why his father doesn't take a knife to the murderer of their beloved friend. We also see Palestinian youth throwing rocks at Israeli military vehicles, which wouldn't be everyone's idea of nonviolent protest. Unlike other peace activists, Davidi, an old head on 33-year-old shoulders, agrees that the rock-throwing falls outside the bounds of peaceful protest. But he insisted that that footage remain in the film when even Burnat voiced his doubts. "People have to know that there is a lot of anger," Davidi says. "What does a nonviolent movement mean? It means that there are people who believe in these ideas. It also means there are a lot of people around who are not following these ideas. So it's a challenge, not a result. Palestinians and Israelis have a lot of emotional challenges to address."

Next Page »

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!