‘Five Broken Cameras’: A ‘best documentary of the year’?

Five Broken Cameras offers an invaluable, up-close-and-personal look at the creative, powerful, and non-violent tactics frequently used by Palestinians but rarely reported by mainstream media

In Five Broken Cameras (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 22) you’ll see overzealous security forces hurling tear gas canisters at civilians, fences being torn down, protesters throwing rocks, and a courageous camera operator recording it all for posterity. It’s not, however, the latest livestream from “Oscar Grant Plaza,” but a remarkable documentary culled from the video archives of a Palestinian “citizen journalist” who’s been filming in the Occupied Territories since 2005.

A self-described falah (peasant), Emad Burnat was born and raised in the West Bank village of Bil’in. A free spirit who preferred roaming nearby hills to picking olives with his father, Burnat acquired a new appreciation for Olea europaea after Israeli surveyors and bulldozers arrived to clear trees and prepare the way for the construction of the West Bank Wall.

Acquiring his first camera shortly after the birth of his fourth son in 2005, Burnat initially used his new toy to film village parties and family events. That same year, however, residents of Bil’in began marching each week to protest the construction of the Wall and the loss of their land to hastily built apartment complexes for ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers. Burnat and his camera were soon tagging along.

The camera worked poorly: its image wobbling from color to black-and-white and back again, it was clearly not a state-of-the-art piece of equipment. It did, however, work well enough to record the vicious beating of Emad’s brother Riyad at the hands of Israeli undercover police, but a tear gas canister rendered it inoperable late in 2005.


And so it went: camera #2, the gift of Emad’s Jewish friend Yisrael, was smashed by a settler in 2007; camera #3 was shot and destroyed by the Army in early 2008; camera #4 succumbed as a result of a near-fatal auto accident later that year; and camera #5 was undone by sniper fire in 2010. Now on his sixth camera, Emad continues to film despite the fact that he’s clearly been targeted by the authorities.

Five Broken Cameras offers an invaluable, up-close-and-personal look at the creative, powerful, and non-violent tactics frequently used by Palestinians but rarely reported by mainstream media. Mimicking settlers who acquire land by putting down mobile homes, the villagers set down their own trailers (which, of course, are quickly removed by Israeli soldiers); taking advantage of an Israeli law forbidding the Army from dismantling illegal concrete structures, they construct their own cinder-block house (which is, in short order, burned down by settlers).

Because of its proximity to the Wall and to the nearby settlement of Modi’in Illit, Bil’in has become a focal point of resistance – and, as the years have passed, the Army’s response has become more and more extreme. Several villagers have been killed, children have been swept up in dragnets, and Emad’s own home declared part of a ‘closed military zone’ — in effect, rendering his family residence illegal.

I’m not sure what I found most shocking in this film: the onscreen shooting death of a peaceful protester, or the utterly casual way in which Army soldiers are seen routinely pelting crowds of unarmed civilians — including children and the elderly — with fusillades of chemical weaponry. Regardless, this is one of the best documentaries of the year and a near mortal lock on an Academy Award nomination.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  


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