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Review: '5 Broken Cameras' Moves Immensely But Not Without Raising Crucial Questions

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by Mark Zhuravsky
June 9, 2012 10:18 AM
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Sometimes, context is everything. “5 Broken Cameras,” a film by Palestinian citizen Emad Burnat and Israeli citizen Guy Davidi, offers some context, but mostly evidence for the brutal, overly aggressive Israeli army response to non-violent demonstrations. You watch with gnawing unease as soldiers lob tear gas with abandon, scattering protestors, who sometimes respond with volleys of rocks and whatever else comes to hand. It’s all wrenching, and immediately, whether the filmmakers intended to or not, it drafts a line between “good” and “bad,” simple as those terms may be. Yet for all its emotional pull, the drama inherent in a group of peasants (Burnat self-identifies as one) attempting to stage non-violent demonstrations in the face of unyielding odds, “5 Broken Cameras” begs for context beyond what is given via narration from Burnat, who is prone to flights of philosophy that would make Herzog proud.

Burnat is the father of four boys with his Brazilian-born wife Soraya, the family residing in the town of Bil’in in the West Bank. “5 Broken Cameras” opens with footage of Gibreel, the beautiful, wide-eyed fourth son, born just as protests ramp up in the West Bank over encroaching settlers, who occupy en masse while the government builds fences and walls. The citizens of Bil’in protest time and time again, meanwhile attempting to find legal channels to save their land, which Burnat says sustains them. To what degree, we never learn. The documentary, edited by co-director Davidi and Veronique Lagoarde-Segot, is geared very much to those looking for clear-cut narrative. That’s not a detriment to the doc, but it remains striking for what it chooses to include as well as leave out.

Let’s begin with a few questions that were hardly addressed: How does Burnat support himself and the family, especially when he is told later in the film not to perform any physical labor? Why does the film choose to state that the Israeli army uses rubber bullets only after showing several protests intercut with close-ups of soldiers firing into the crowd? What are we meant to believe? The film largely relies on Burnat’s footage, but why are the other cameramen, who also filmed under fire and from whose footage key moments were composed, left practically unmentioned? For the sake of propriety, here are their names: Yisrael Puterman, Jonathan Massey, Alexandre Goetschmann, Shay Carmeli Pollak, Heitham Al-Khatib, David Reeb, Islam Amira, and Bassam Hamad. This is understandably Burnat’s story, and the editors work hard to avoid straying from the father and husband-turned-cameraman, but it hurts the doc to keep certain points out of the light.

All that aside, we are still left with an absolutely necessary addition to the Israeli/Palestinian conversation. Scenes that will stay with you long after include men largely clad in ultra-orthodox garb bullying and hitting demonstrators who stand under the punches; kids watching a protest get broken up; olive trees burning day and night (we are told the settlers are responsible and this is more than likely but how do we know for sure?); dozens of tear gas grenades raining down, obscuring the sun as people run for it; and finally, the simple visage of a man slicking back his hair before a demonstration. This is Adeeb Abu Rahmah, a ready and able demonstrator, combining showmanship with a genuine determination to see justice in his lifetime. Another man we get to know is named Bassem Abu Rahmah aka Phil, and his story is the saddest of all. The music, by Le Trio Joubran, is tender, but ultimately should not have been used – it gives the documentary a cinematic appeal that feels more commercial than honest.

Watching Burnat’s youngest grow to hate the soldiers is chilling, and puts a human face, one of many, on the conflict. After so many protests broken up, needless deaths and some truly reprehensible actions by the Israeli military forces, just how do you forgive, or even forget? It is an earnest hope no one will claim “5 Broken Cameras” is a two-sided, even-handed documentary. It isn’t, and that’s precisely the point. It just pays to remember that and not to attempt to wield the film as a weapon. We can’t hope to know what goes through the minds of the soldiers nor the protesters; at least not outside of the few minutes we are granted right in the middle of action. Don’t look to “5 Broken Cameras” for specifics, but see instead a picture that suggests the impossibility of peace and a broken system, that while effective, practically ensures another go-round with the next generation. [B]

"5 Broken Cameras" is now playing in limited release.

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