By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood January 31, 2013 at 2:52PM
"I film to heal," says Emad Burnat, a Palestinian filmmaker and activist living in the West Bank, towards the end of "5 Broken Cameras," the disturbing and intricately layered documentary composed predominantly of Burnat's footage, which he crafted into a film along with Israeli director Guy Davidi. To forget, Burnat says, is to allow the wounds to fester in some hidden place; it is memory—and documentation—that are necessary to experience true recovery.
UPDATE: The first Palestinian documentary to earn an Oscar nomination, "5 Broken Cameras" won the top prize at the Cinema Eye awards; is returning to theaters, and is also available on DVD, Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, Amazon and VOD.
Burnat's filmmaking began in 2005, when he bought a camera to record the life of his newborn son Gibreel, as well as the burgeoning demonstrations that had begun in his village of Bil'in to oppose the encroachment of a nearby Jewish settlement. The film's title refers to the five cameras destroyed during Burnat's time documenting the resistance—the sixth is still functional, and Burnat continues to film with it to this day. His footage is simply shot but compellingly so: the experience of watching the story from such an intimate (and indeed, often first-person) perspective is almost jarring at first, but as the years go by, his filmmaking becomes smoother, more assured, more emotive.
But the most compelling aspect of "5 Broken Cameras" is the subtle yet powerful layering of Davidi's documentary frame onto Burnat's extensive footage. The two met in Bil'in in 2005, when Davidi came to cover the demonstrations and then shifted his focus towards a documentary about water rights in the area. Davidi lived in Bil'in, and as the only Israeli in the village he would receive calls before the soldiers made their arrests. In 2009, Burnat told Davidi he wanted to make a film about his cousins Adeeb and Phil (Bassem), two of the central figures of the protests.
Davidi's conscious decision to focus the film only on Burnat's experience and elide his own identity as an Israeli allows "5 Broken Cameras" to have the impact that Burnat's footage deserves, and simultaneously makes it a work that is less journalistic and yet far more moving. "5 Broken Cameras" is not a balanced or an impartial film, and that's part of the point: it allows Burnat to tell his story, to develop his perspective, both through his footage and through a continuous stream of thoughtful and at times elegiac narration, freed from the expectation that both sides must have a chance to make their case.
That decision is carried throughout the documentary, which is at times a bit confusing in its narrative. Footage of the growing demonstrations is juxtaposed with Burnat's growing son, whose very childhood is of necessity indelibly marked by the resistance, and events are presented in a loose chronology. But the episodic nature of the film (each camera's footage is specifically delineated, accompanied by a timeline explaining when it was operational) underscores the cyclical nature of the interactions between the Palestinian activists and the Israeli soldiers. Again and again, the residents of Bil'in approach the fence that separates their village from the Israeli settlement; again and again, they are driven back by the soldiers' tear gas and flash grenades. The outcome is always the same, yet both sides remain completely committed to their positions.
Davidi is up-front about the film's narrow perspective. When asked at a Q&A to explain the nature of the Israeli settlements and the complicated legal interplay between Jewish settlers and the Israeli courts (something that the film mentions but does not explain in detail), he responded that the film is committed to Bunat's point of view as a Palestine. He cannot explain the intricacies of the settlements because he cannot get past the fence, and in a larger sense, "5 Broken Cameras" cannot explain those intricacies.
In this way, Davidi and Burnat's film presents a subtle but important challenge to the belief (one which I think is particularly strong in America) that for a film like this one to have "done its job," both sides must be allowed to make their case and the viewer should walk away equipped to make a decision about which one is right. This obsession with the back-and-forth exchange of arguments and facts and he-said/she-said media coverage is something we find ourselves inundated with right now, given the election.
But "5 Broken Cameras" is more powerful because it provides a deep, revealing look into one human experience, one which comes across as quite distant from the high-minded diplomatic politics of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Does the film suggest any answers or solutions to the conflict? No. But in its specificity, it reveals a richer, more nuanced and admittedly one-sided view of the situation. From one man with a unshakable need to document his life, that is an impressive achievement, indeed.