The tiny Palestinian village of Bil’in has become the frontline in the drawn-out struggle to stop Israel building a wall through the West Bank. 5 Broken Cameras is a documentary of this struggle, filmed over the course of five years and encompassing the destruction of five video cameras, as the title suggests. No doubt, it is an important social document, but from a film-makers’ standpoint it has another significance: it is the first masterpiece of a new genre - often called citizen journalism.
Release Date: 15th October 2012 (UK)
Directors: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi
Writer: Guy Davidi
Running Time: 94 mins[/inset_left]
The cameraman Emad Burnat bought his first camera in 2005 when his Brazilian-Palestinian wife gave birth to a new son. He intended to document the first steps of a new baby, but also began filming the weekly demonstrations against the wall. Filming demonstrations is so widespread in Palestine that it can seem that everyone is holding miniature DV cameras and iPhones aloft. What makes Burnat’s footage different from the activists’ films that fill the internet is his level of access, and his tenaciousness. He never simply pointed his camera at the Israeli soldiers as they unleashed their barrages of gas grenades, he always focused on his old school friends, his relatives and all the other villagers, and over the five years in which these people are injured or killed, the destruction of an entire way of life becomes a far more real and human story.
There are antecedents for 5 Broken Cameras. The astonishing Burma VJ (2008) is an account of the protest, largely led by monks, against the military dictatorship in Burma in 2007. Burma VJ was constructed from footage smuggled out of the country or shared via the internet: VJ stands for video-journalists. Another Palestine-based documentary, the engrossing Budrus (2009) is also largely constructed from amateur footage, and documents in the village of Budrus a very similar anti-wall struggle to that in Bil’in. However, Burma VJ and Budrus also include professionally shot reconstructions and interviews intended to contextualise the events, and both are credited to foreign directors and writers, Anders Ostergaard and Julia Bacha, respectively. 5 Broken Cameras is different because it is almost entirely composed from Burnat’s own footage. There are exceptions, but these are used sparingly. They include additional footage borrowed from activists who shot the same events as Burnat; and, after Burnat is injured in a tractor accident, footage appears showing him in hospital and answering questions. But it is always Burnat’s own experiences that shape the film, and the selections he makes when he points the cameras are fore-grounded as personal, authorial choices.
Nevertheless, Burnat is not the sole author of his film. Rather, it is a collaboration between Burnat and the Israeli documentary-maker Guy Davidi. When creating a film out of footage shot by ordinary people, learning skills as they go along, on cheap cameras, much of the work happens in the editing suite. It is here, in the gloom, staring at a computer screen, that the end product emerges. We should never forget that documentaries are very artificial constructions, around 90 minutes long, framed somewhere between an essay and a short story, and ending with a conclusion that feels like the last word even when life rolls on regardless. Burnat’s situation has not changed, because the wall can neither be completed nor abandoned. It was always a political project intended to unilaterally impose Israel’s final borders: an impossible project that ended when its architect, Ariel Sharon, fell into a coma. Life – in this instance the endless occupation – goes on and on for ever. 5 Broken Cameras captures this experience to stunning effect. One knows there will be far more broken cameras: the series will never end, it is simply that someone has pressed ‘pause’. More importantly, 5 Broken Cameras recognises that the person wielding the camera is a real film-maker, a fact which Burma VJ and Budrus can never quite accept.