“I never thought of making films,” says Emad Burnat. “But now that I have a camera, people begin to call me to shoot special events in the village.” As he speaks, you see what he’s shot, a group of acrobats performing on the street in Bil’in, an occupied Palestinian village on the West Bank. The performance features Emad’s friend, an obviously vibrant personality whom “the kids call “El-Phil.” “It’s a nickname,” Emad explains, that means “the elephant,” alluding to the “hope” they see in him, “which is not something easy to find in adults.” Phil performs beautifully, soliciting applause and smiles from the appreciative crowd.
Here the film cuts to another scene, another crowd, again led by Phil. The shot follows their peaceful protest of a barrier the Israelis plan to erect in order to build yet another “settlement.” As soldiers stand atop a ledge of rocks, they use a bullhorn to instruct the demonstrators gathered just below them. Told to “Stay off the construction site,” the demonstrators remain in place. Emad goes on to apologize for the image: “My camera doesn’t work well,” he says, as the frame is disrupted by digital static.
The two scenes introduce the doubled focus of Five Broken Cameras, that is, Bil’in’s collective efforts to resist the coming settlement, and Emad’s efforts to make sense of the incursions. “I was born and lived all my life in Bil’in,” he says. He used to work alongside his father picking olives, but more and more, the land where the olive trees grow is being claimed by Israelis. As his future changes before him, Emad also thinks about his past, his father (who appears in traditional dress, at a distance) and his four sons. The youngest is born in 2005, just as Emad begins recording events in earnest (“I used my first camera to film Gibreel,” he narrates, as you see the infant in close-up). The “land of my childhood and his birth,” Emad observes, will never be the same.
Screening this week at Film Forum, Five Broken Cameras charts Gibreel’s first few years of life, as well as Bil’il’s increasingly organized protests, and, on occasion, his wife Soraya’s observations regarding his expanding activities. Emad introduces his wife by noting her dedication to his family’s business: “She grew up in Brazil,” he says, “She loves picking olives.” As she works alongside her oldest son Mohamad, Emad adds, “More than feed us, the land connects us.” It’s a simple-seeming image of family members and workers, comfortable and “united” in a tradition and a future, but as both are slipping away, the image resonates beyond the present. Emad draws attention to the fact of the image—its function as a means to preserve and order experience, as well as a means to communicate, to build support, to create an idea of community and self-identity.
Eventually, this idea will be altered, as the encounters between protestors and soldiers turn violent, with the use of tear gas and guns. The protestors block the wall that’s being built, they erect their own structures, subsequently broken down and moved. Emad films meetings among community members, drawing out plans of protest with maps. He films the protests, the camera sometimes swinging wildly, and he films Israeli drivers and construction workers (“If you point that camera at me again…” one threatens, waving his hand at the frame), and burned olive trees. He records his brother being arrested and captures a couple of moments when he, Emad, is fired upon: the frame careens, and he explains that he’s moving on to a next camera, this one being broken.
He also shoots Soraya at home with their children: she hangs laundry on the roof while explosions sound in the background (“Emad,” she exhorts, “Don’t let the kids out, the soldiers are in the village”). In the kitchen, she listens to a now three-years-old Gibreel describe one of his first visits to the protest area. “I wasn’t afraid,” the child insists. Emad laments the difficulty his children face, that Gibreel is watching “people getting arrested,” and concludes, “He’ll develop a thick skin fast.”
Soraya is less sanguine as the clashes become more dangerous. At one point she turns to Emad in their home, urging him to stop filming. After several arrests of relatives and friends, shootings (Emad’s camera is hit more than once, and he credits each broken camera with saving his life), and even some murders, she confronts her husband. “You see what’s happening to us because of you filming?” she asks. “You see what they did, before but you never learn.” The connection she makes between Emad’s filming and the escalation of stakes—the risk to her family as well as to the community—is telling. As much as Emad imagines the filming creates order, she sees it as introducing disorder, expanding the problem, irritating his unwilling subjects.
Emad rejects this reasoning, though the film doesn’t pretend that what he’s doing is without cost. The question raised by Five Broken cameras is, how is it possible to tell stories and so create identities amid destruction?