November 8, 2012

Broken Cameras and Steady Hearts

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There are few things more important than our families and our homes. But what would we do if our loved ones, our houses and our livelihoods were threatened? Five Broken Cameras, directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, depicts a community’s struggle to hold on to the little they have and the fierce love and loyalty that leads to sacrifice and, ultimately, victory.

Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer, was one of many people whose life drastically changed after the Second Intifada in 2000, a Palestinian uprising against the Israelis that led to the death of nearly 1,100 Israelis and 5,500 Palestinians, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli non-governmental organization. This violence led to an upswing in conservative Israeli sentiment and contributed to Ariel Sharon’s election in February 2001. The campaign of suicide bombings that followed led to the building of what the Israelis call the “separation fence” in 2002. It is amid this political turmoil that Burnat’s fourth and last son, Gibreel, is born. A present to Burnat on Gibreel’s birth is a camera, which first functions as a tool to preserve his son’s childhood. But it quickly becomes a powerful political tool when Bil’in, the village where the Burnats reside, learns that the separation fence will cut their vineyards in half, the vineyards that not only constitute the community’s livelihood, but also serve to bring the community together.

And so Bil’in’s struggles begin. The first peaceful protest near the wall ends quickly, as Israeli soldiers throw grenades filled with tear gas at men, women and children who have no weapons of their own. One of Burnat’s brothers is jailed and many are injured. It is important to note that the protesters never resort to violence; while it is difficult not to hear the anger and grief in their voices as they chant their slogans, not one of the villagers carries a weapon or hurts an Israeli soldier during any point in time. On the other hand, the soldier’s reactions slowly become more and more horrifying, as they move from tear gas to rubber bullets and from rubber bullets to live ammunition that takes the lives of three protesters, including an 11-year-old boy, in the neighboring town of Nil’in. The soldiers make midnight raids, rousing many of the non-violent protesters from their beds and escorting them to prison. The imprisonments happen intermittently, so as to give the villagers as much fear as possible; no one knows whether the next person taken will be a friend or a family member. At one point, Burnat himself is taken in. When we see him a month later, he is not the same man; he becomes thin, his face hollowed and his eyes bloodshot from exhaustion, his posture utterly defeated. And yet, when he is released, he again takes up his camera.

Perhaps one would cynically expect such atrocious and inhumane behavior from soldiers, but the truly disconcerting parts of the film were the scenes which depicted violence between the settlers and the villagers. While, technically, settlers are not allowed to build houses outside the land designated for Israeli citizens, many settlers establish trailer homes on Palestinian land, trailers that are eventually turned into permanent residences considered illegal by Israeli and international law. When the villagers organize a sit-in on the site where a new trailer is to be situated, the settler responds by punching one of the protesters in the face. When the villager does not strike back, he hits him again and again until the villager is lying on the ground, his face covered in blood, sobbing in pain.

Images like those are difficult to forget, but the most provocative part of the movie was the effect of this violence on the children, particularly Gibreel. Burnat’s subtlety renders these scenes with his son much more powerful and touching. The simplicity of the language of the movie allows the audience the space it needs to emotionally react with the film. When Burnat films some of Gibreel’s first words, he does not intrude with direct political commentary; and yet, one cannot help but feel sad at the idea that any toddler’s vocabulary should consist of the words “the wall,” “cartridge” or “army.” Gibreel’s innocent questions when his friend is killed are painfully poignant. When he asks his father, “Why did they kill my Phil?” Burnat cannot provide an answer, precisely because there is no logical answer as to why an armed soldier should murder a peaceful protester.

However, one cannot leave Five Broken Cameras without feeling somewhat hopeful. In the end, the separation fence is removed. Yes, many of the olive trees have been burned by the settlers and will have to be replanted. Yes, Burnat has been incarcerated, shot at and lost one of his closest friends. Yes, Gibreel has seen more violence and hatred in his five years than most people see in a lifetime. But he still smiles and laughs. The family still celebrates his birthday. And most importantly, his father is well and alive and still filming.

Original Author: Lubabah Chowdhury