The Broken Cameras of Emad Burnat

There’s a brief scene in Five Broken Cameras where Gibreel, the boy, is seated in the barber’s chair.  A large black and white collar is wrapped around him, beginning at his neck and covering his small body. The razor begins to sever the boy’s black hair, which falls in curls to his shoulders and then the floor. The face that emerges from this scene is older, more angular, less innocent, as though this chubby little thing has undergone a rite of passage.

If all rites of passage have a strong element of violence in them, then Five Broken Cameras, which chronicles the resistance of the brave, resourceful inhabitants of the legendary Palestinian village of Bil’in to the horrors of the occupation, is one long, powerful series of rites of passage, each testing and re-affirming the steadfastness (sumud) of the village and the extraordinary courage of the key characters whom we meet in this home video-turned-documentary film.

But the word documentary does not quite fit Five Broken Cameras, because this film, co-directed with the Israeli film-maker Guy Davidi, is also a beautifully rendered (in simple, poetic Arabic) meditation on fatherhood.  In these meditations, Emad Burnat, the unemployed farmer who buys his first camera after the birth of his fourth boy Geebril, struggles not only against the Israeli occupation in all its brutality and legal arbitrariness but also with the wisdom of protecting his son from the violence which surrounds the little boy.  (At the end, he gives up the protective instinct for something more transcendent.) And the violence in this film is pervasive, palpable, constant. Burnat looses fellow comrades to the bullets of the occupier; he himself is wounded, recovers in an Israeli hospital, and returns to his documentary practice against the wishes of his wife, the violence of the settlers (burning olive trees, disfiguring the rolling landscape, encroaching on the land) and the penetration of the Wall and its protector, Israeli forces, deep into Palestinian olive groves.  Burnat documents all this, but he also comments on the events, his resonant voice hovering, as it were, over the entire filmic landscape, the horrors, the shootings, the destruction of his cameras.

Bassem and Adib Abou Rahmah. Photo: Kino Lorber

At times he is philosophical, at times depressed, at times indignant. But what struck me most about Burnat’s voice is its inward turn, its abandonment of the attempt to tell the world to pay attention.  And in doing so, Burnat achieves something extraordinary:  liberated from the dictates of persuasion, from telling his broken story with an eye to turning Western viewers into sympathizers, relying on primitive technology, Burnat and co-director, give us a remarkable film about the home front.  On this front we meet Burnat’s parents, his other three boys, his wife, his fellow resisters, the youths of the IDF. We meet them in their actions; we see them up close; we come to know them well; and when Adib Abu Rahmah (the Phil) is shot and dies, a lump forms in our throats.  All this is in this film, and more–all the characters larger-than-life, made so by the struggle in which they have thrown themselves.

Photo: Kino Lorber

But the film never loses its center–the cameras, the occupation, the boy Gibreel, and the duties of fatherhood.  As unrelenting as the IDF forces, as persistant as the local villagers, Burnat’s cameras, like Geebril, are ever-present, ever-threatened with destruction. In fact, the entire film (like the villagers) hovers on the edge of being and non-being, of annihilation and self-assertion.

I could write more, but this is the kind of film which also makes one wary of using too many words, so powerful is its impact in image, language (mostly Arabic with some Hebrew), music, editing.

I have seen dozens of documentaries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Five Broken Cameras is in a league of its own. I have read many, many reviews of such films; most of these reviews don’t do justice to the films.  Mine doesn’t either, but for very different reasons which stem largely from the inadequacy of words, from the embarassment of writing.  But rest assured, some reviews of this film have talked about the “intractability” of the conflict; others mention the film’s “one-sidedness.”  Don’t listen to such timid words.  Its scope and depth, its utter originality, its weathered look suggest a comparison, if a comparison is necessary, with the greatest of films.  A commentator has pointed out its affinities with Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, whose subject too was the intractable Algerian War of Independence, whose perspective too was, thankfully, one-sided. To ask the occupied to be “objective” about the occupier is to ask, cynically, that the occupied commit self-destruction.  On four occasions, Five Broken Cameras faces such a prospect, but it remains steadfast, a small gem of a miracle in a world soaked to the core with violence. The film ends with Geebril, now five years old, standing against the Wall, chalk in hand, inscribing a word on its surface.  It’s his name.


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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