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.”
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.”
What makes 5 Broken Cameras stand out is its insistence on nuance and its refusal to get caught up in the self-defeating war of words over who is the bigger victim. The movie shows scant regard for politicians, including Hamas and the Palestine Authority, whose officials are shown sweeping though Bil’in for a quick photo op. “We’re not trying to show that the Palestinians are a clean society full of peace and goodwill,” Davidi says. “The opposite—it’s a society disturbed by violence, and we show how this anger builds, especially when we follow Jibreel through the years.” On the other hand, we also see Burnat’s life saved in an Israeli hospital after he crashes his truck, apparently accidentally, into a security barrier. And when a small boy offers an olive branch to a soldier, we see the soldier hesitate, unsure of what to do, and then accept the twig. “The villagers, many of whom speak Hebrew and worked in Israel, know that the soldiers are not their target,” says Davidi, who did not serve in the Israel Defense Forces beyond basic training (he would only say that it’s a “long story” and that he did his utmost to not serve). “They know some of them are victims of the system, and they try to put pressure on them to resist.”
5 Broken Cameras received generous funding within Israel, and though it has not yet screened in Bil’in (the Arabic subtitles are not ready), it will screen at the Jerusalem Film Festival this July. Israelis who work in the arts are accustomed to doing so alongside Palestinians, and audiences there, Davidi says, are far more open-minded than in Jewish communities abroad. Still, given the rightward drift of Israeli politics and the intransigence of the Hamas leadership, the prospects for peace remain unclear. Both filmmakers acknowledge the bleak situation in the West Bank and especially in Gaza. But says Davidi: “People think there’s more security now because of the wall, but it’s really because there is a growing understanding among Palestinians that violence has completely failed. A window of opportunity is inevitable.”
Last week, that window was pried open a few more inches when Arab prisoners staged a nonviolent hunger strike in Israeli jails and won significant concessions. Davidi and Burnat are convinced that change will come from the bottom up, not through political channels. In their different ways, too, both emphasize the spiritual energy behind the movement.
“Suffering is there to stay for all our lives,” says Davidi, a committed Buddhist. “When we look at Gandhi, we speak of the practice and ethics of nonviolence. But it was the spiritual element that gave the movement energy in India and other countries. People need this hope in order to survive when the situation seems hopeless.” Instead of using religion to divide, Davidi and Burnat hope that the nonviolence movement can harness religious belief to the cause of peace and coexistence. “I don’t know what’s going to be in the future,” Burnat says. “Only God knows.”