Friday, February 1, 2013

5 Broken Cameras Movie Review

It used to be that in your Academy Awards pool you could place good money on any Holocaust-themed or Israel-as-terror target movie to win the Documentary Feature award. It is perhaps a little too revealing of general sentiment toward Bibi Netanyahu’s administration and its policies toward Palestinians, the peace process, and settlements in the West Bank that not one, but two documentaries that are critical of Israel have been nominated for the award. The first is an Israeli and Palestinian co-production called 5 Broken Cameras. It is pure documentary in its most simplistic format, featuring personal footage shot by Emad Burnat, a resident of Bal’in, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. His cameras document weekly protests of the settlements that continue to encroach upon their land and the separation barrier that cuts them off from their livelihood. The film is divided into segments each one marked by the destruction of one of his cameras. In the end he displays them all on a table, some broken by the Israeli Army, one shot, one destroyed in a car accident. All filmed with a sixth camera that we’re told is still filming today. Burnat’s co-director is Guy Davidi, who stepped in to help with the editing, the translation of the Hebrew spoken by Israeli citizens and soldiers, and the voiceover narration that steadily defines the narrative.


I tend to be rather skeptical of and suspicious of documentaries that are framed to expose the nasty tactics of the Israeli government and army. I do not go along with the arguments that Israel has created an apartheid state or that it’s un-democratic. You need only look at a couple of blink-and-you-miss-them examples in 5 Broken Cameras to see that Israel is democratic, has judicial oversight, and a relationship with basic human rights. Those moments come when Burnat casually refers to a Palestinian being released from Israeli custody after his lawyer got the charges dropped (access to due process); Burnat’s treatment in a Tel Aviv hospital following a car accident where he almost certainly would have died in a Palestinian hospital. This happened despite the fact that his lack of Israeli citizenship makes him ineligible for state health insurance (concern for human rights); and an Israeli high court’s decision to move the barrier after months of protesting (judicial oversight – even though it took years for the decision to take effect). However, it is virtually impossible to deny, given images on evidence in Burnat’s footage, that the settlements are anything other than an unnecessary provocation to armed conflict and violence.

It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the Israeli settlements that continue to be built in the West Bank are populated by ultra-Orthodox Israelis who are to the peace process what Hamas is on the other side. When the Bal’in villagers attempt to prevent the placement of trailers (a quirk of Israeli law says that once a trailer is placed on the land, it belongs to the owner of the trailer) where new settlements will eventually be built. The Israelis who wish to build then attack the villagers, who are peacefully protesting.

What Burnat’s record shows week in and week out, year after year, is that his friends’ and fellow villagers’ non-violent protests are continually met with aggression from the Israeli soldiers, who are so keyed up that the moment a villager begins shouting, throws a stone, or gets too close, they launch gas grenades, fire rubber bullets, and occasionally unleash live ammunition. His camera captures a deplorable scene when soldiers who already have one of Burnat’s friends in custody shoot him in the leg for no discernible reason. Later, a villager regarded as happy-go-lucky, always smiling, always playing with children, is killed during a protest.

Meanwhile, soldiers arrive in the night banging on doors, waking families from peaceful slumber, demanding to be let in. They tell Burnat he’s not permitted to film them with his own camera from inside his own front door. They issue arrest warrants for villagers, children included, suspected of throwing stones. They pronounce that the village is a designated military zone and subject to military rules. I have been and will remain a staunch defender of Israel’s right to self-determination, to live free of terrorism, to be a Jewish state, and to refuse to negotiate with Palestinian terrorists. But images like this make it really difficult to understand what the hell they hope to accomplish. It’s a PR disaster.

Ultimately, while I found many of the images powerful and sometimes moving or calling my belief system into question, I also found much of the film a hodgepodge of editing and confusion. Burnat’s narration, obviously recorded specifically for the film in the editing process with his dulcet voice and disaffected tone. His observations contain the power of hindsight and reflection. They are clearly not his thoughts as they occurred in the moment. And there were too many times when I felt I could have used some sense of context or some explanation as to what was going on.

Intercut with scenes taking place at the border fence, Burnat includes more personal and intimate moments with his family. He tells us early on that each of his four sons are somewhat defined by the time into which they were born. One was born at a time of renewed hope following the Oslo Peace Accords. Another son was born on the day of the start of the Second Intifada. His youngest boy it seems will be shaped most by the events depicted in this film. Here is where I question some of Burnat’s decision-making skills as a father as when he brings his 3-year old son to the demonstration. This is a place where violence can so quickly erupt, where there is no guaranteed protection. Additionally, to expose a child who has no capacity for understanding motivation and context to ghastly acts of violence is like setting the stage for a lifetime of hate and distrust. The future generations of Palestinians and Israelis need to trust each other to find a lasting peace.

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