Thursday, August 22, 2013

Five Broken Cameras: a movie review

"It is difficult to channel anger into something positive."

--Emad Burnat

Last night I watched the movie Five Broken Cameras.  It was made by a Palestinian man named Emad Burnat, from the small village of Bil'in on the West Bank.  He spent the years 2005-2009 filming what life was like for him, his family, and his village.  The title of the film refers to the five cameras Emad owned and used over that time period, each of which was broken by Israeli soldiers.  The movie affected me deeply and put a human face on a conflict that often feels too complex and big to even understand.


I've recently been reading the book Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World by Karen Armstrong.  Chapter 3 is called "The Present Conflict" and valiantly attempts to give a chronological explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 20th century.  This conflict is so damn complicated that it makes me almost despair of even understanding it, let alone trying to do anything constructive about it.

But if there is any lesson to be gleaned from Emad's film, it is the lesson of perseverance and never giving up.  When we are faced with problems that seem so huge and overwhelming, we can get paralyzed by our own feelings of bewilderment and powerlessness.  And, for me, there is something incredibly moving about a person like Emad who found a way to move forward through the struggle.  For him, it was through the act of filming.  In my own life (with its problems that are much smaller in scope than Emad's), the way though struggle has often been writing.  Even now, as I write these words, as I attempt to turn my own bewilderment into communication, I find the angst in my heart to be soothed a little.  And thus, through the act of creation, we give meaning to our struggles.


The film provides an intimate, human portrait of one man's attempt to document, understand, and ultimately give meaning to his life, his family, and his whole community.  Emad got his first camera when his son Gibreel was born, to simply make family home movies.  But as tensions continued to mount in his community, he just started filming everything.  One of the most powerful aspects of the film is how it juxtaposes intimate, warm, family events with the intense, horrifying conflict which shapes their lives.  When Gibreel says his first words ("wall" and "cartridge"), Emad films it.  When his best friend Phil is shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, Emad films it.  When his brother is arrested for peacefully protesting and his father climbs atop the army truck weeping, Emad films it.  When Israeili soldiers begin arresting Palestinian children, Emad films it.  When the sky is clouded with tear gas and his own son is coughing violently from the toxic fumes, Emad films it.  When soldiers burn down the olive trees that feed the village, Emad is there with his camera, always filming.


What emerges is an incendiary and moving portrait of an oppressed but persevering people.  They are poor olive and goat farmers who risk their lives every week staging peaceful/nonviolent protests against Israel's steady encroachment on their land.

Here in America, we tend to hear only the Israeli side of the conflict.  The United States is, officially, Israel's ally.  Palestinians tend to get portrayed in American media as barbaric, extremist, Muslim zealots.  The reasons for these perceptions are complex and historical.  The book Holy War goes a long way to explaining these western prejudices and stereotypes.  I remember once, in college, being shocked when I saw students demonstrating on behalf of Palestine.  I remember thinking, "What the hell?!  Why are these students siding with the Muslim terrorists?!"  

What the film Five Broken Cameras does is complicate and break down western stereotypes of Palestinians.  Emad and his family are not terrorists.  They are poor olive farmers whose land is being systematically taken from them by a much more powerful Israeli army.  They are an oppressed people, simply struggling to exist and to survive.  The film forces us, as westerners, to think not in abstract terms and stereotypes, but to think in terms of real human lives and human communities.  It encourages us to do the hard work of reading , studying, being open-minded and compassionate, of never giving up trying to understand the complex problems of our time, and finding creative ways to move forward through struggle.

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