The Cameraman

5 Broken Cameras
(France/Israel/Palestine, 90 min.)
Dir. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Co-director Emad Burnat with his five broken cameras.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber Inc.
Long live the cameraman. The person at the front lines of documentary filmmaking, the cameraman gets right into the thick of the action. Standing with the subjects, or slightly behind them for a better angle, the cameraman captures the details and the emotional urgency of events as they unfold. Footage of the towers’ collapse on 9/11 is a good example of the cameraman’s power. At first static and observational, the camerawork became shaky when the towers collapsed and the cameraman ran for his life with the other citizens of New York’s panic-ridden streets. Just as footage of 9/11 gave a point-of-view role to audiences both national and international, a good cameraman turns a story into a lived experience.

Emad Burnat offers a notable feat of using his camera to capture a sense of life amidst the Palestinian/Israel divide. Living in Bil’in, a Palestinian village located only a few kilometres from the West Bank Wall, Emad documents his community’s daily struggle with Israeli forces. Emad begins filming in 2005. It’s the year of the wall’s erection; it is also the year of the birth of his son, Gibreel.

5 Broken Cameras, an Oscar-nominee for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, starts as a home movie and grows into a greater story. As Gibreel grows, so too does the physical barrier near Bil’in. Likewise, the political situation becomes increasingly volatile as Emad’s camera captures a blow-counterblow relationship between the villagers and the Israeli army.

The struggle claims the lives of several of Emad’s peers. The violence also stops Emad’s first camera from recording more evidence. However, Emad’s camera rolls as strongly as the spirit of his community. A camera saves the filmmaker’s from a bullet life, and the bullet reminds him of life’s fragility, provoking him further to use a camera to document the truth. A new camera replaces each one, just as the will of the people of Bil’in becomes stronger in the face of escalating aggression from the Israeli army.

Emad’s documentation of the events gradually becomes inseparable from the story of his family. One story cannot be removed from the other, since Gibreel will know life only under the shadow of the looming wall. The stories of Bil’in and of the Burnat family become an intercut struggle, or two parallel sequences that progress together. Fighting for the community and fighting for the family is the same cause.

5 Broken Cameras captures the escalating conflict as Emad’s cameras are picked off by soldiers. As Emad gets into the thick of the protests, which become increasingly volatile during the five-year-span of the film, he captures incredible footage that documents the spirit of his people. An exposé as well as an essay for peace, 5 Broken Cameras offers a powerful tale from one artist who evolves from casual observer to impassioned activist.

5 Broken Cameras is an illuminating look at the overwhelming complexity of the situation in the West Bank. Much like this year’s provocative Canadian drama Inch’ Allah, 5 Broken Cameras is an affective portrait of both the personal and the political. Sad, yet also incendiary thanks to the footage onscreen, 5 Broken Cameras allows audiences to see the conflict through the eyes of one individual living amongst the violence. The film might serve as a primer for Western audiences that wish to know more about the complexity of the struggle, just as well as it would make for an excellent double-bill with the drama by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette. A double-bill of 5 Broken Cameras and Inch’ Allah would make for a sombre, emotionally draining night, but it could make for a sobering one as well.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)  

5 Broken Cameras is currently available on iTunes.