Earlier this year, the Iranian documentary “This Is Not A Film” wore its poverty of means — parts of it were shot on an iPhone while its director was under house arrest — as a badge of honor. “Five Broken Cameras,” based on footage almost entirely shot by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, also puts the wide availability of cheap video cameras to political use, showing off their wear and tear with pride.
The film is structured around the terminal harm done to five video cameras owned by Burnat and used to shoot political protests in his West Bank village. At one point, a camera saves his life, stopping a bullet. The image quality steadily improves; when Burnat lays out the five cameras on a table at the beginning and end of “Five Broken Cameras,” it’s noteworthy that he progressed from tiny models to much more deluxe ones. At times, however, “Five Broken Cameras” is marked by digital noise, Burnat and Israeli co-director and co-editor Guy Davidi leaving in footage where the image breaks up.
“Five Broken Cameras” is split into five segments corresponding to each camera Burnat acquired over a five-year period. He began filming in 2005 and ended in 2010. While he shot almost all the footage in “Five Broken Cameras” — the film never explains who photographed the images of a hospitalized Burnat — Davidi was largely responsible for the film’s editing. The film mixes the personal with the political, quickly showing how the village of Bil’in became infuriated by the encroachment of Israeli settlers and a separation wall onto the land. The villagers’ protest is non-violent; the Israeli response is not, to put it mildly.
Little about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict leads one to optimistic conclusions. “Five Broken Cameras” is a powerful film, but it’s far from entertaining or upbeat. The directors depict a world where life is cheap and the threats of arrest and violence are always around the corner. The entire West Bank seems like a heavily policed slum.
Over the course of “Five Broken Cameras,” Burnat is arrested (he serves some time in jail and then spends an additional period under house arrest, where he continues filming) and almost dies in a car crash. He spends two months in an Israeli hospital, 20 days of that period unconscious. His brothers are arrested and shot. His children witness violence at a young age. Burnat’s camera captures the shooting of a small boy. Burnat and Davidi rub the spectator’s face in the ugliness of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
There’s one potential source of light in “Five Broken Cameras” — Burnat’s children. His youngest son, Gibreel, was born around the time he began filming. At the time “Five Broken Cameras” wraps up, the child is five. Each section of the film, which kicks off with the acquisition of a new camera, brings us up to date on Gibreel’s life. This approach risks coming off as sentimental and manipulative. With the rest of the film so grim, however, it doesn’t play that way. Birthday parties lie cheek by jowl with horrendous violence. If that seems jarring or even distasteful, one can only imagine how it felt to live through it.
Burnat’s filmmaking seems compulsive, to say the least. His wife, Soraya, repeatedly complains that it’s a negative influence on his life. Burnat says he feels safer when carrying a camera, but quickly adds that it’s a false sense of security. Still, in filmmaking, he finds a tool to empower his community. Showing his footage of protests to a group of villagers encourages them to keep fighting. I’m not sure how Burnat and Davidi got in touch, but Burnat seems to have gotten some funding halfway through the project. What started out as an amateur documenting his life turned into a work of greater political significance — and a film that’s traveled the world, winning awards at Sundance and a film festival in Amsterdam.
If there was ever any merit to the Zionist project, “Five Broken Cameras” suggests it’s been lost in blind tribalism and grasping for land and power. It ends on a slightly hopeful note, but one can sense that Burnat and Davidi are grasping for straws. Even so, the very fact that Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers could come together and collaborate on a film dealing with such contentious subject matter offers more optimism than anything in “Five Broken Cameras” itself.
FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS | Directed by Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat | Kino Lorber | In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles | Opens May 30 | Film Forum | 209 W. Houston St. |