Emad Burnat is a farmer who lives in the town of Bil’in, on the West Bank. Over the course of the mechanical life of five cameras, he documented the story of his everyday life—his children, his friends, his home being swallowed by encroaching Israeli settlements, his frustration at watching arable land being split by an impervious slab of ugly concrete. Each of his five cameras had a chronological life of its own before being extinguished, in some way, by some external force. Regardless, he carries on, a passive soldier in an active war. His weapon is a camera, and he shoots what he sees around him.
Following a screening of the documentary 5 Broken Cameras at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival last month, Israeli co-director Guy Davidi, who also scripted the film using Burnat’s footage, spoke frankly with me about his own expression of passive resistance and the potential for “this sort of film” insofar as promoting dialogue between the conflicting sides.
But not before he corrects me.
“I’m careful with the words, ‘this sort of film,’” he says cautiously. “There are many different kinds of films, not just documentaries, dealing with this issue.” Perhaps, but one of the things that makes this particular film so unique is that it was created with the close support and participation of political peace activists on both sides of the border, something he himself is quick to point out. “Not all films [are] made around such supportive communities from either Israeli or Palestinian.” Though the film has yet to be screened in Israel, it did receive a standing ovation from the diverse crowd I saw it with in Toronto.
I ask him how he thinks Israelis might respond to the film, which shows the frustrating, often violent, always tragic day-to-day life of his Palestinian co-director, Burnat. “People tend to categorize this sort of film. I’ve seen it with many audiences; they assume something that they know, a film that will be very accusing or full of pity, and they’re completely surprised by what they see at the end.” He is hopeful about its eventual Israeli reception, and anticipates a similar shift in that audiences’ perception as well. “The question is if it will be categorized so much before watching that audiences don’t bother to see it. Or there will be those who do bother to see it, and that will be the change.”
The more we talk the more I find myself thinking about how different audiences may respond to 5 Broken Cameras. We each carry our own, often politicized and emotional baggage that is likely to color how we see a film that, despite being politicized and emotional, speaks so clearly about the common wants, desires, and experiences of humanity. The overwhelmingly unified response of that diverse Toronto audience seemed highly encouraging.
The question is, can this (or any) “sort of film” bring the diverse range of people from either side of that region’s conflict together to experience the kind of unity experienced after the screening I attended?
Davidi concedes that the complex subject is difficult even for those who are actively pursuing peaceful changes. “Even the way I present it, with a discourse that is basically saying, ‘we should not act out of our anger so much,’ or ‘we should find a way to use the anger in a positive or constructive way’—that’s something that for many activists is something that is very hard to accept.” Davidi knows that he is liable to be angrily criticized for the film and its portrayal as some sort of “compromise.”
Davidi refutes that view. “I say no, anger is not constructive. It can be constructive for a day or two. Even in Israel you have social demonstration protests that last for two months; they express their anger and then they go back to their despair, back to their reality. Anger is a good energy to start things but it’s not something that can last. You have to have more.”
The director, who is from Tel Aviv, has been passionate about film since his youth, and it is what eventually directed him out of the army. “My first film I made when I was 16 years old. It was a video clip of The Beatles, actually.” Though he did spend time in the military, Davidi left when he found he couldn’t work within the organization. “It wasn’t a political decision,” he says. “It was just all of my intuition, my stomach, my body, just resented that system and what it does. I was stupid and curious enough to enroll,” eventually finding a way out, unable to conform to the systemic violence around him. “I couldn’t stand that.”
As an outsider, I am struck by what seems to be the inherent dichotomy of a government that would fund a documentary that so effectively illustrates its flaws while humanizing its perceived enemy. It seems like such a contradiction and I am interested in the dynamic, which strikes me as being counter-intuitive. Davidi takes a moment’s pause. “A state is not one thing,” explains. “It consists of a lot of elements, a lot of institutions. They are not all in sync all the time.”
He then goes on to talk about the Israeli Cinema Fund and how it is helmed by professional filmmakers, “good people,” working within the film industry. “Even though it’s governmental money, the government can’t control the content.” Of his own film managing to benefit from funding and ultimately receive acclaim and such positive international attention, he says, “we couldn’t be ignored [by these institutions], and there were people who supported us because they felt this was a story that has to be told. There’s a lot of freedom there to create. If you let yourself believe that what you’re doing is important, and you believe that films are actually meaningful, you will get the support.”
Despite not finishing his own military service, perhaps Davidi managed to learn something about military strategy. Though the use of words, song, or film as active tools of passive resistance is nothing new, the notion that this work of celluloid artillery is somehow borne from within the body it is critiquing might be. I ask him if he sees himself as some sort of resistor. “Of course,” he says. “I’m resistant to all ideas. Resistance is first, the resistance of ideas. Resisting is maybe not the best word but I can use it in a manipulative way. I resist emotions. I resist depression. I resist anger. The people of Bel’in… they resist anger and hate.”
The pivotal moment of the film occurs when one of the activists, whose face, voice, and mannerisms the audience has come to know, is unexpectedly killed. The graphic moment and its aftermath are captured, and the experience of a passive audience member is jolted into one of active, very real heartache. It’s intimate, and it’s upsetting. Of his subject’s death during the making of the film, Davidi concedes, “there was a lot of shock.” Regardless, the loss of such an integral figure ultimately bears little on the over-arching political situation surrounding the people of Bel’in. “There were all the reasons for the movement to collapse completely in Palestine, but the experience of his loss was shared by all the activists.”
Many of Davidi’s own friends and colleagues doubted that the film would succeed at every level, from funding to distribution, based on its inherently controversial subject matter. The swirling cynicism and doubt was something that, in and of itself, required a level of resistance. “When you’re a creator, you have to try to forget all the old ideas. You have to resist them, even on the most basic practical level,” he says. “You cannot filter your world just with your ideology. It’s a resistance to assumptions.”
I ask Davidi about his future projects and he is firm but enthusiastic about wanting to continue with social documentaries dealing with other issues, including his own military service. “The challenge is to find stories that cross between emotions, personal stories, and social issues. You try to make a film that crosses all this but also lets you use your imagination. I’m the kind of filmmaker that wants to use my imagination and I’m really frustrated when I have a topic that doesn’t let me do that. That’s my advantage, what I want to give to film. ”
5 Broken Cameras is screening at New York’s Film Forum through June 12.