Five Broken Cameras

By Elizabeth Wood

5-broken-cameras-emad-burnat-guy-davidi.jpg5 Broken Cameras, 2011

When the Israeli government began to build the West Bank barrier through Emad Burnat’s village in 2005, the Palestinian farmer took his own course of action by filming the weekly demonstrations. Over the period of five years Emad shoots 700 hours of footage at the expense of five cameras which were destroyed during the filming as the protests of the villagers grew stronger. Together with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, Burnat reviewed, edited and narrated the footage, creating a documentary that shows with remarkable tact and power a case of injustice on a massive scale. 5 Broken Cameras (2011) gives an insight at what it means to be at the receiving end of oppression with no choice but to fight the inevitable.

The following conversation with the filmmakers Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, moderated by DocHouse founder Elizabeth Wood, took place at the Riverside Studios, London, on 21 June 2012.

Elizabeth Wood: I'm sure my first question is one everybody wants to know: Since the film's finished, what's been happening in your village?

Emad Burnat: There's not much change. The wall was removed, the old fence, and a new one was built on the land... some land was returned to the villagers, but they keep protesting against the new wall and the construction, the settlement.

EW: What's happened to Adeeb? Has he come out of jail?

EB: Yeah, Adeeb came out and he's a taxi driver now, and every Friday he participates in the demonstration like other people in the village.

EW: So you continue?

EB: Yeah, we continue and I keep shooting and filming every week.

EW: Did anyone pursue anything about Bassem's[1] death?

EB: Phil was a very nice person... and he was more connected to the children and he respected the people of the village, or the people who came from outside, so wherever you went, you'd find him helping out or talking to people, or laughing. His death was a shock for everyone in the village, for everyone who knew him. It was very hard to believe

Guy Davidi: After this footage was released on the Internet a lot of people watched it, and an investigation started. There's an ongoing legal procedure, but the case was opened one year after it all happened. I can give you another example which is the shooting of Ashraf[2] that we see in the film – these images were also widely spread around the Internet, and in that case the army had to react, so they had the soldier on a newspaper apologising to Ashraf for what he'd done. Then there was a trial and they [the Israeli soldiers] were accused and charged with "unworthy conduct", which meant that the commander [who ordered the soldier to fire] didn't get promoted and the soldier who shot Ashraf was downgraded. 

EW: It's remarkable to have an Israeli and Palestinian collaborating and making a film like this. Let's hope that's going to happen more in the future.

GD: We were very sensitive about the issue because Israelis and Palestinians work together and it's mediatised, it's used as propaganda to show that Israelis and Palestinians are able to work together. So we didn't want to put much emphasis on that. Personally, I want to normalise that in the film, that the Israelis are helping Palestinians in their struggle because it's also their struggle. But we didn't want to idealise it or put it at the centre. Even if I'm Israeli and Emrad is Palestinian, for us it was a natural decision to work together, because there's a movement around us. It's not that we work together because we thought, "Oh! It's going to look very nice to the outside world that there is a Palestinian and an Israeli working together." There is a bigger context of how it is conceived by many people, it's important to say that for us, it was a very natural thing.

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EB: Yeah, I didn't decide to work with Guy because he is Israeli. We've been doing this for a long time and does it change anything? So, in the end he goes to Tel Aviv and has a beautiful life and I...

[Laughter] 

EW: ...but you have a really beautiful village.

EB: Yeah, that's true... and we are a big family and I like my life in the village. I like it even more than Tel Aviv. I always miss my village when I go away. I feel connected to my land, my trees, my family more than I feel connected to other countries. And sometimes people or organisations use that Israeli and Palestinian relationship for their propaganda, but the way we were working together was very natural and not political...

EW: That's one of the great strengths of the film, that it is a personal story and not a right on the nose, political piece of propaganda. That's why it's so incredibly effective and unique. I believe you had 700 hours of footage?

EB: Yes, I had 700 hours. I started filming when the villagers started to strike, when they started to resist, I knew that I was going to make a film. And many films were made about the subject – about Palestine, the wall, the conflict – but I said I'm not going to make a film now, I will just keep filming and I will keep focusing on friends and family, on my son, Gibreel Burnat growing up, to make a more personal film about the life, the natural life, not just about politics.

Question: Your wife made a very clear point during the film, that you should stop filming or maybe do less so that you are not constantly putting yourself at risk of being arrested and taken away from your family. How do you deal with that dilemma?

EB: My wife has always supported me and I always respect what she is saying. She was worried about me because every week, I spent all my time filming at night, during the day, always! Sometimes I got shot or my camera was smashed or I've been to jail, so it was hard for her and for the kids, and for me to always be away from them. So my wife wants me to stop filming but it's something I believe I have to do. I believe I have a responsibility to do it. It's more than just about me and my wife. But she knows that now. She is happy because the film is very successful and people can see the film everywhere and it's helped our case, the Palestinians, not just me or my village – it's helped the whole country.

Audience: There is no difference between Israelis and Arabs, we are all Semites. This distinction was created by the Western media. Emad you showed a lot of pictures of how Israelis deliberately shoot innocent people using Armalite riffles supplied by America, JCBs from Britain, lorries from Scandinavia... The whole world is ganging up on the Palestinians and they have been doing it since 1948. I would like you to mention the fact that when they remove these olive trees, they do not destroy them, they move them to Israel where they benefit from your toil and the work of your fathers and your grandfathers. I applaud you and I applaud all my brother Palestinians but we have to remember Jenny Tonge has made an effort to speak on behalf of the Palestinians and she has and still is paying a hard price much to the shame of the establishment in this country where they degrade the women. There are three things: For the ladies, stop using all your cosmetics, for the housewives, don't buy any olive oil... and finally, do not buy Coca Cola, every dollar you spent on an American product buys one bullet to shoot one Palestinian.

EW: I think we could also say that Emad made quite a sacrifice to bring this film to us... with his personal life.

[Applause]

Q: At one point in the film you say that you had the feeling that your camera protected you but then felt that it was also an illusion. I was very interested and very moved by your choice to structure the film around the five broken cameras and all the metaphors about fragility. At what point did you decide to use that as the structure of the film?

GD: Actually, I'm going to answer that question. When Emad approached me in 2009 to make this film together, we had already known each other for a few years because I'd been going to Bil'in as an activist from 2005 and I'd made my first film there. I knew his work and he became a very important figure for the village as a cameraman. After Phil's death in 2009 when Emad approached me, there seemed to be an urgency to make a film about him. Although, if you look at the footage, you see that he was also intrigued by many other important events like Adeeb's protest and his son, I was not actually convinced that we could make this film as a general film about feeling, Adeeb and the movement, because this movement was extremely mediatised and it had been filmed a lot. There were films that came out from Bil'in and from other villages as well. So I suggested to Emad to make it a personal film, and to put himself as the centre of the film with his voice and his storytelling. And the idea with the cameras came up because I was with the activists and sometimes we'd receive emails asking, "Can you maybe look for a camera for Emad?" And a good friend of ours gave him his camera. So I remembered that he was ruining cameras... [Laughter] When we met, at one of the first meetings, I asked him "So, how many cameras in total have you had?" He collected them from different closets and we found out that there were five in total, and then that became the structure of the film.

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EW: Emad, how did you feel about becoming the central person in the film and making it a personal film?

EB: Actually, I was filming and focusing on my friends Adeeb and Phil and Gibreel growing up. So, the idea was always to make a personal film from the beginning, but not to put the focus on me and not to use some of the footage you saw in the film because it was hard for me to use this material, and there's other footage, more difficult than this... what happened to Phil is what affected me most and I wanted to put the focus on him but the stories are about the friends and the family and not political at all.

EW: How does it feel to you now? And how did you feel when you went to IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam] and saw your story in front of an enormous audience?

EB: We were working day and night making the film and, in the beginning, you never know... will the film be successful or not... I actually did not know how people would react. The premiere, the first screening at IDFA, was great and the people's reaction was very strong, so I thought that we're on the right way.

Q: I have two questions for Emad: The first is how are your sons and especially Gibreel? And my second question is about the shot of the death of Phil which was very shocking in itself, also the juxtaposition of the shots around it. There was something in the sky... maybe you can give a background of those two shots.

EB: Yeah, I think in the same shot you see soldiers shooting gas grenades around people and around Bassem... but people are in danger everywhere in the village, every week, so in the beginning, nobody realised that Bassem was dying or that his injury was serious. And you see the birds in the sky, it's the editing but there's a connection, because when something happens... even somewhere else on the planet, you can see birds flying off and that's something connected to the situation...

GD: That's emotional editing. It doesn't mean that in the spot there were birds in the sky like that. That was taken at a different moment, but then the images were put together for the editing to create an emotional impact.

EB: You also asked about my sons... Gibreel is now seven years old. He's good, he sometimes thinks like an old man and as he was growing up, he's always been asking questions, because it's not normal to just come into this world and see soldiers or wars. From very early on, he opened his mind about everything and you feel that he's a young man, not a child. In the film you see him asking me, "Why didn't you kill the soldiers?" He was affected by Bassem's death, he was thinking like a young man and just wanted to react.

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Q: Since your film has now reached an international audience, have you noticed any difference in the attitude the Israeli authorities or the military authorities have towards your demonstrations after Friday prayers? Is there a different reaction now?

EB: You mean the reaction of the Israelis? No, I don't think so. There's no change about the soldiers' reaction against people or the demonstration. It's the same reaction as always.

EW: Has the film been shown in Israel?

GD: There was a pre-premiere screening at a small festival in the South where we received an award from Julianne Moore's daughter, her twelve year old daughter, and that was kind of a teaser for the release at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July [2012] and a TV broadcast in August and also a semi-theatrical release in the winter... but the film has not yet been shown broadly.

EW: What was the reaction?

GD: The reaction was very good. But I have to say, it was not much different from outside Israel.

Q: When we leave here and go back to our lives is there anything that you'd like us to remember and to do?

EB: Yeah. It's important that you remember that this is not just a documentary – this is not a film – this is life. So people should be connected to this life and think about this, what's happening there, and to tell your friends and to talk about the film, about the life there and the situation so this way we can change and more people can get to know the reality and the truth about the life here and not just watch the TV's propaganda and the lies of the government.

EW: Guy, is there a way that people like this lady can actively participate?

GD: If you search for "solidarity with Palestine UK" on the internet you'll find out many different ways to participate.[3] Personally, I think there are general things that everybody can do, like not buying Israeli merchandise, but what's most important is that people try to use their talents to support [the Palestinians]. It depends on what everyone's doing... I am making film... but we talked about PR, so maybe do some PR project in your company... The second thing is that I believe in creating relations, so I'm making films about that and not so much about immediate actions but to create something that lasts. I am really supportive of trips and tours to the West Bank because these tours create relationships between people and it means so much for the Palestinians to see people coming from outside who show them support. This creates a strong motivation to take meaningful actions – not just signing a petition or boycotting. I am really supportive of going as much as we can to Palestine, but also to other places like Africa, to organise missions and to create relations... I don't think people act from some kind of self-purification: "We are doing that so we are OK; we are boycotting Israel – that's OK!" It's very hard to boycott Israel anyway, because if I buy an iPhone or if I buy an HP printer I am in some way collaborating and if not with the Israeli occupation then with the Chinese exploitation... it's very difficult. So for me one of the key things is to build stronger relations and connections that create a kind of a fire inside that then makes it possible to change reality in much more concrete ways.

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EB: I think people, especially in the UK, should take responsibility for what's going on in Palestine, because here's where the Palestinian problem started, and people should feel bad about this and should do something. It's not just to participate by joining an organisation or by boycotting, it's important to put more pressure on the government here in the UK.

Audience: We should send all our protests to the MPs, we all have the power to send protests to the MPs. I hope you can show the film in the House of Commons.

Q: Did you want your son to experience and see the things that were happening actively so that he could develop a thick skin like you said? Or did you really want to shield him as much as possible knowing that one day these are the things he's going to see anyway?

EB: This is our normal life, so people see soldiers in the street and near the house, in the night, every week. So you cannot hide a child inside the house and tell them, "No, don't go outside because it's dangerous." They have to know about their life, they have to learn what it is going to be like. Gibreel was always very close to me. He wanted to go wherever I went, so I couldn't just tell him, "No, stay at home." I wanted him to be aware and see everything.

EW: In the film you said that for you the filming is a healing process. What do you think will be the healing process for your children who might grow angry?

EB: No, he's not becoming angry just because I let him know about what life is going to be like. It may be difficult, and I am just trying to show him something, to use my camera as my weapon and by doing that, to change the situation or to create a better life for my children... but they have to know what's going on.

Q: You mentioned that the Palestinian authority didn't see you as having the right image for a Palestinian resistance member. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

EB: In the beginning, the first two years or so, the people from the village were striking and no one supported them, not the government or any politician. Sometimes you just saw politicians coming by themselves – not sent by the government – to participate. Then, two, three years later, the government became involved; they supported the resistance and the struggle. But I was there, I know what was going on, I know the people who are involved and who they communicate with, so I know that they just came to use the people in the village – the struggle – for their political needs – that's all.

EW: Guy, you filmed Emad when he was in hospital, right?

GD: Some parts of it...

EW: Why did you not get support after Emad left hospital?

GD: From where? If you mean from the Palestinian authority, they are mainly supporting people who were directly influenced by the resistance, but Emad had an accident. An accident is not seen as part of the resistance. It's true, filming is a form of resistance, but for them, because he didn't fight in a demonstration, it didn't count. For example, if it was just a man having an accident – not Emad – just a normal man from the village, who never participated in a demonstration, then probably that's that. Of course, even if it's not Emad and even if it's just someone who is injured, why shouldn't he be treated? If they have money, they are not sharing it equally, just according to who's more resistant? Who fits better the "image" of resistance? That's not the way to create solidarity in a country.

5-broken-cameras-emad-burnat-guy-davidi-5.jpg 5 Broken Cameras, 2011

There is also a lot of corruption... everyone who is linked politically. I know this because I filmed in the hospital in Tel Aviv and the people who came in from Gaza – after the Israeli bombing of Gaza which happened at the same time Emad was hospitalised – were people connected directly with the Palestinian authority because anyone linked with other political groups would never be accepted by Israel or they would never be sponsored by the Palestinian authority, so it's all part of the political game inside Palestine.

Q: For me, one of the most striking and powerful things about your film was how it was filmed. I feel that even from the beginning you have a lot of restraint. We only hear your voice when it's very important. Like when one of the soldiers is talking to you, but when you are around your friends you never talk to them, you just film. And even when something very important is happening – someone being shot, someone being injured – we see the camera shake but you try not to engage, you just film. Was that a conscious decision not to participate or was it just a natural thing for you to do?

EB: Actually, I have used my camera from the beginning to participate in the struggle, I use it to protect the people around me, to be a witness and to show the footage. For example, when my first and second brothers were arrested, my mother and father went over to the jeep and tried to stop them, I decided to keep filming because I knew that if I left the camera and would go and fight with them, I would have been arrested, like my brothers. So I thought that the camera is a good witness and a strong weapon.

Q: When you are filming and you see these things happening in front of you, how much do you have to restrain yourself? Were you actually fighting all the time to just hold back and not do anything?

EB: When something happens I feel that I have to keep filming and not be engaged, because if you want to do something you have to be inside and leave the camera; it is important to keep filming – this is something inside that I believe I have to do – and not talk to the people or scream to the soldiers. To keep filming sometimes is more powerful than to be part in the action.

EW: For a self-taught filmmaker you film remarkably well and hugely consistently...

GD: When I made my first film, Emad contributed to it with some footage and I had a chance to see one of his tapes. I really liked the material. There was a water scene and it was really well filmed. So I remembered thinking, OK, this guy knows how to film. I didn't know him at that time, that was 2005, and I didn't know what would happen.

Q: Everybody seems to have a camera on their mobiles nowadays. In demonstrations in Britain, for example, now everybody films the police. Is that the same in Palestine?

EB: Yeah, actually there is more people using cameras and iPhones in Palestine, especially in my village. You can't see the action, but more than twenty guys are using cameras and filming.

Q: How long did it take you to edit that?

GD: I think once we had the main characters – Adeeb obviously and Phil and Emad's family – that provided a lot of the material, and then we also had a lot of footage of the demonstrations and of the violence. But you can only use a certain amount of violence in a film and the challenge was not to have the violent scenes neutralising each other. Because you see one scene, you see a second, a third and then, OK, that's it. So how can you create a film in which you are going to have so much violence – more than what you see in a normal American action film – and still be emotionally connected to that? And that was the editing challenge: to move from very intimate moments to the social narrative of the village, the violence and also to find links in the footage to Emad's life, to his brothers, to Israel, to his friends, to create these kind of links. That was a challenge. So it took a long time. First to review all the footage, to digitalise it and to start creating a structure around the five broken cameras, the major events, their chronology and to follow Gibreel as a lead line to create the feeling of time. In many films you don't feel the time but we wanted to have the wall being built and getting closer to the end of the construction and Gibreel getting older... to create this length like an epic film. It was a lot of writing – writing and reviewing – before actually editing. The direction was created from the start; we had conversations together from which I wrote the text and then Emad reviewed it. All in all, it took about two years I think. In the last editing phases we worked with a second editor in France who brought a lot of her feminine sensitivity and a lot of refinements to the scenes and also how to make it so that the information comes in softly and not at you so you are not distracted by getting too many facts and then becoming emotionally detached, which happens a lot in films.

Q: The narration is very poetic and reflective especially at the start. Was that deliberate?

GD: Emad is very, very sincere and direct in the way he speaks and I am kind of very emotional and poetic, so it's a bit my interpretation of how he experienced life. I am sure if I'd read it, it would just be awful. But because Emad's tone is very delicate it works.

[Applause]


Endnotes


[1] Bassem was also known as "el-Phil" (the elephant) and is referred to as Phil in the Q&A.
[2] Ashraf Abu Rahmeh. For more information in the case, see the related article in the Guardian: Israeli soldiers charged over shooting of Palestinian prisoner: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/aug/07/israelandthepalestinians.middleeast
[3] Other useful links:
- Popular Struggle Coordination Committee: http://www.popularstruggle.org/
- Jewish Voice for Peace: http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/
- Anarchists Against The Wall: http://www.awalls.org/
- American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC): A Guide to Palestinian films and film institutions: http://www.adc.org/fileadmin/ADC/Pdfs/Palestine_in_Film.pdf
The Guide provides links to other websites, trailers, articles, filmmakers and institutions, distributors, and to the films themselves, many of which are available for viewing online. It is meant to be a gateway to the whole world of Palestinian film. The project began as a simple list of movies, but quickly expanded and took on a life of its own.