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5 Broken Cameras

July 14, 2012
5 Broken Cameras

There is a certain bravery that it takes to be a journalist in conflict zones, putting your own life and safety on the line to bring a story to the world. But it’s something else to live in a conflict zone and let it turn you into a journalist. That’s what happened to Emad Burnat, living in the Palestinian village of Bil’in on the doorstep of the Israeli occupation. 5 Broken Cameras tells the story of the village’s resistance in an intensely personal way no professional journalist could have pulled off.

In early 2005, two important things happened to Burnat. First, his youngest son, Gibreel, was born and he got his first camera to shoot home videos like any other proud father. Second, Israeli surveyors came to start laying a barricade through the village’s outlying fields to expand the settlements surrounding Modi’in Illit even further past the Green Line. Burnat was there to film it all.

From the beginning, Bil’in cried out. Every Friday after prayers they headed to demonstrate — by and large nonviolently — at the barricade. Some of them became regular fixtures — the outspoken leader, the dreamer, the grinner — and Burnat was the cameraman. Over five years he was a constant presence, and you can see his technique improve with the constant practice.

The settlements grow as well, ostensibly driven by a need for living space. Israeli developers aren’t supposed to place their trailers on land that isn’t there, but once they do it’s a done deal. But when Bil’in tries putting their own trailers down they’re swiftly removed. The next step for the developers is to place makeshift concrete structures which the Israeli army is forbidden to demolish; Bil’in manages to place their own concrete outpost, only to have their olive trees torched in retribution. There is a palpable sense that the village is being cordoned into tighter and tighter quarters, until some day it will be liquidated completely. At times it feels like that day has come.

This is all intercut with videos of Burnat’s family, and particularly of Gibreel growing up under such circumstances. Among his first words are “wall”, “cartridge”, “army”; he learns to walk alongside protest banners. These scenes help maintain the bracing truth that these are no guerrillas, but families just trying to live as they always have.

The other truth is the vast asymmetry between these sides. The villagers sometimes throw rocks — particularly when military trucks drive into town late at night to arrest children accused of, well, throwing rocks — and they are met with assault rifles. Tear gas grenades fall like rain.

Maybe the most galling is the targeting of journalists for being journalists, which is second only to intentionally targeting medical personnel in the ranks of bad form. And yet over and over, Burnat’s camera is smashed or shot, sometimes while he’s holding it up to his head. Simply carrying his camera and hoping that recording these images somehow matters makes him a target of a despicably intentional effort to silence the opposition; all the more reason to honor his efforts now that the story is over.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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