5 Broken Cameras is a Found Footage Horror Documentary
I walked into the RIDM screening for 5 Broken Cameras with trepidations and I walked out with questions: trepidations about the subject of the documentary and the way that it was filmed; questions about human nature and our capacity for casual cruelty.
5 Broken Cameras is a point of view documentary based on footage shot by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat over a six year period beginning in 2005, documenting his life in the village of Bil’in and the village’s non-violent protest over a “separation barrier” installed by the Israeli Army – designed to keep the village and a new Israeli settlement apart. A barrier that made it impossible for the villagers to access their olive groves and the crop that sustained farmers like Emad.
Documentaries, by their very nature, are the most subjective of films. (The ones that pretend to be objective are the most subjective of all.) We walk into documentaries with baggage, both political and personal. The great documentaries get us to put that baggage down temporarily, the best ones give us new luggage to carry.
Politically, I take no sides in the Gordian Knot that is the Israel/Palestine conflict other than the “A Plague on Both Their Houses” side. I tend to believe that a solution to the conflict can only come when both sides acknowledge each other’s right to exist. I have a sneaking suspicion that even that neutral statement is likely to be used by somebody as the pretext for an argument; this conflict is one where rational argument and discussion seems to go to die. The worst part of the political arguing that springs out of the conflict is the way that the partisans on both sides murder language. Terms like genocide are such over-exaggerations that they make it impossible to discuss the situation appropriately.
On the other hand, both sides use terms like settlers and settlement, making the topic of colonialism an appropriate discussion. My hope for 5 Broken Cameras was that it would give us a view of colonialism from inside the world of the aboriginal people being displaced as their land was being stolen. My fear was that I would get an over the top piece of agit-prop struggle nonsense.
My personal aversion to most point of view documentaries is one passed on to me by my father who was an administrator, writer, producer, teacher and curator at the National Film Board for thirty years. The natural instinct of administrators, writers, producers, teachers and curators – all, is to cringe at the thought of finding your documentary in the editing room, to shudder at the notion of filming until you find your narrative. The rule of thumb for documentary producers (not directors) is to aim for ten hours of footage shot for every hour of footage that ends up edited on the screen. For 5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat shot 700 (!) hours of footage that was edited down to 94 minutes. To put that into perspective, if an editor watched 50 hours of footage per week, it would take 14 weeks just to go through 700 hours and figure put what footage you had!
Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi made two conscious decisions to structure the footage that gave their film a narrative spine. First, as indicated by the title, they structured their footage around the 5 cameras that Emad used during the six years that he filmed. Since each camera lasted about a year before it was inevitably broken by an Israeli soldier, the footage from each camera served as roughly equal chapters for the film.
Perhaps more critically, Emad had originally started filming to document the birth of his fourth son Gibreel and the film is structured around Gibreel’s journey from baby to toddler to child in a village torn by occupation and protest. In a sense, Gibreel is as much the hero of the story as his father is.
Part of what insulates the film from political chauvinism is that much of it is the point of view of a child. And from that perspective, the film is a nightmarish horror of a childhood stolen. At the risk of outraging political partisans of 5 Broken Cameras, the film that it reminds me of the most is the found-footage horror film Trollhunter. Both films revolve around politics and religion; both are point-of-view films with a talented cameraman properly framing the shot – any shaky-cam shots are earned by events; and, in both films, the destruction of cameras are major plot points. The critical difference, of course, is that while Trollhunter is a fantasy, 5 Broken Cameras is all the more horrible for being real.
The central moment of child horror in the film comes when Gibreel and a crowd of pre-teens lead a Children’s Crusade protest after weeks of being rousted in the middle of the night by the Israeli Army waking the village to arrest teenagers. Chanting “Let Us Sleep!” the children march on the separation barrier (and the Israeli Army) before, sadly, horribly, inevitably, being dispersed by tear gas.
I recognize that it may seem frivolous and disrespectful to compare 5 Broken Cameras to Trollhunter, but for me to properly process and understand a film, I have to understand it artistically. Political partisans of the film may bristle at the thought of discussing its artistic merits instead of the political struggle it represents, but all great politics contains art, just as all great art is political. Art without politics or politics without art are all just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
In fact, the political protests in Bil’in depicted in the film gain traction when they become pieces of performance art designed to demonstrate Israeli legal hypocrisy. In addition to the Children’s Crusade protest, the Bil’in protestors place a trailer in the olive grove on the other side of the separation barrier, mirroring a common tactic of Israeli settlers to claim a foothold on Palestinian land, leading to the Israeli Army doing to the Palestinian trailer what they would never do to an Israeli settler’s trailer – and hauling it away. The protestors’ follow-up is to take advantage of a loophole in Israeli law commonly used by Israeli settlers: the Isreali Army is legally not allowed to tear down concrete buildings, so they build a concrete building in the olive grove, which the Israeli Army ignores and the Israeli settlers vandalize.
There is a tendency by partisans of the Palestinian cause to describe Israel as “lawless”. What 5 Broken Cameras demonstrates is that it is worse than lawless, it is a country of inconsistent and sometimes contradictory laws unevenly and unfairly applied. At a certain point in the film, Israel’s Supreme Court rules in favour of the Bil’in protestors and agrees that the separation barrier is unlawful… but the Israeli Army ignores the order and continues to man the barrier. When your army ignores your judicial branch of government, you have a problem.
Emad’s footage underlines this problem when he captures Israeli soldiers first arresting a Bil’in protestor and then once he is restrained, carefully and methodically shooting him in the leg. I’m Irish, I know what a kneecapping is, but I never thought that I would see one performed on camera, let alone find out that the soldiers who performed one in violation of both International and Israeli law have never been so much as arrested for their crime.
If there is hope in 5 Broken Cameras, it comes from the fact that Emad Burnat owes his life to Israeli doctors (and the success of his film to his Israeli co-director.) This is an ironic sort of hope, since Emad was injured when his car collided with the separation barrier. If the barrier had not been there, the accident never would have happened, but if he had not had the accident on territory controlled by Israel, the severity of his injuries would have made a trip to a Palestinian hospital almost certainly fatal.
If there is despair in 5 Broken Cameras, it comes from the saddest image from the film: the burning olive trees set on fire by Israeli settlers. Choosing that image as the saddest may seem odd, when there are actual deaths in the film of human beings that we get to know and love, but the murder of trees broke my heart in a way that the murder of a person never could. Here my own language becomes hyperbolic and imprecise: murder seems too severe, but vandalism seems not harsh enough. Herbicide? Arboricide?
In another inappropriate disrespectful reference, it reminds me of the tree poisoning incident documented in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Roll Tide/War Eagle. The sports mania that led a crazed Alabama fan to poison an oak tree beloved to Auburn fans may seem frivolous in comparison to the hatred that led Israeli settlers to set fire to olive trees beloved by Palestinian farmers, but the question for both is the same: How morally bankrupt do you have to be to kill a beautiful tree for no better reason than it will hurt someone you hate to see that tree dead or dying?
The great strength of 5 Broken Cameras is making me care enough to ask that question. The great sadness at the heart of the film is that I do not see a way to answer that question in a way that gives Gibreel the opportunities for the secure and peaceful childhood that all children deserve.
Guy Davidi, the Israeli writer and co-director of 5 Broken Cameras is crowdfunding to bring his film to Israeli youth on Indiegogo. You can contribute to the campaign HERE.