5 Broken Cameras is currently streaming on Netflix UK.
In order to document the growth of his newborn son, Emad Burnat, a farmer in a small Palestinian village called Bil’in, buys a camera. This event coincides with the beginning of Israel’s encroachment on the agricultural lands of Bil’in and the villager’s resulting peaceful protests. Emad documents these protests over the next five years, which also see the development of his newborn into an unsettlingly conflict-aware child. Moreover, this five-year old is not above the occasional tear-jerking symbolic gesture, like presenting a literal olive branch to a fully-armoured Israeli soldier. Emad also has three elder sons, and each one of them, he tells us, is a phase of his and his country’s life. The eldest boy was born in the time of hope after the Oslo Peace Accords, when the family “could go to the sea every summer”. The second boy was born three years later “in a time of uncertainty”. And the fourth was born on the first day of the Intifada, a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence, so the hospital was full of the dead and wounded.
Such retrospective imposition of narrative structure on the events of the past is something that humans do instinctively in order to make sense of their lives, to give them shape and ultimately meaning. This process is not dissimilar to what Israeli director Guy Davidi must have had in mind when he took on the project of gathering together and editing Emad’s hundreds of hours worth of footage in order to filter them into the 90 minutes of cohesive storytelling, character development, narrative arc and leitmotifs that make up 5 Broken Cameras (2011). The eponymous cameras that Emad uses throughout the period of filming and their unfortunate fates become the structural carcass around which the story of the documentary is built, as the breaking of each camera marks the end of a chapter.
However, despite the moving subject matter and all the clever structural and editing decisions behind the film, the final result leaves one cold and unmoved and the story feels weak and unconvincing. The reason for this may lie in the lack of the initial artistic rationale and design behind most of the footage used in the movie. It is clear from the beginning that the footage we see was never intended to be in a full-length feature film with a narrative and character development. It was not even intended as a video diary, although Davidi tries to impose elements of this format on the material. The attempts at tying the private family footage and the protests into a narrative don’t produce a cohesive whole and ultimately fail. The story is often in need of propping by visibly staged material, like the above-mentioned olive branch incident, or a family trip to the sea which signifies the opening of the border and provides an obligatory and somewhat forced happy ending. Interestingly, however, the film’s central problem is quite revealing about the nature of filmmaking, suggesting as it does the importance of the intention of the person behind the camera.
Other aspects of 5 Broken Cameras, like Emad’s voiceover and the mournful score by Le Trio Joubran, feel too conventional and lack emotional punch. Even the home-video aesthetics and the shaky camera that have come to signify ‘authenticity’ in fictional filmmaking as much as in documentary, are nowadays too much of an established convention to be effective on their own. Our desensitisation means that in order to be shocked we need a striking contrast like the ‘raw’ footage that comes at the end of the beautifully animated Waltz with Bashir (2007), a superior documentary that deals with conflict in the troubled region.
Nonetheless, it would be too harsh to suggest that 5 Broken Cameras isn’t worth watching, because it is, even if only for its subject matter. But there is more. The most striking thing about the film is the landscape, which only very rarely leaves the frame. The villager’s attachment to the land is not just spoken about in Emad’s voiceover, but is visible in the very way they walk its hills, sleep under its trees and know every corner of its geography. The images of this land, which is of course at the very heart of the conflict, bring in Biblical and mythical associations, and add an epic aspect to what we see. This is why the brief footage of burning olive trees (the result of arson attacks by the Israeli settlers) is some of the most powerfully symbolic and poignant imagery I have seen in recent times.