5 Broken Cameras

Posted December 13th, 2012 by Thomas Grimshaw

Last week I had the pleasure of watching the documentary 5 Broken Cameras at the Hackney Picturehouse and in attendance was co director Guy Davidi, who afterwards hosted an in-depth discussion/workshop session that looked at how the film came to be made.

5 Broken Cameras is an impressive feat by any stretch of the imagination. Filmed over six years the documentary charts the non-violent protest movement of the Palestinian village of Bil’in as they struggled against the Israeli build separation barrier that ran through their community. Over this period Emad Burnat one of the film’s two directors sought to document the escalating violence that the village was subjected to on an almost daily basis. Arrests, tear gas, beatings, night raids and shootings became a part of a hopeless and terrifying reality that showed no sign of respite. Simultaneously, Emad also took to filming his own family, specifically his new born son. Cherubic and curious, we watch as Gibreel’s development is influenced by the intense and protracted conflict that surrounds him.

In 1936 the British-American novelist Christopher Isherwood wrote in his autobiographical memoir Goodbye to Berlin, ‘“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’ Although Isherwood had his sights firmly directed at Nazism – the task of ‘bearing witness’ in the vein of Isherwood or even Pepys is still very much at the core of Burnat and co director Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras. The film, although not as ‘passive’ as Isherwood’s book, is also distinctly apolitical in its presentation, which could seem contentious given the historicised political nature of its central conflict. However to its merit this actually imbues the film with one of its most compelling traits: a universality that transcends history and distils the conflict to the level of timeless myth. This elusive quality is perfectly compounded by the quality of its footage. Shot on five different handheld cameras – each one broken in conflict, the fractured, digitised look of the film with its washed out colour and indistinct focus forces us to view the events through the prism of home-movie conventions where images of horror and bloodshed fleetingly pass across the screen like half-forgotten dreams and indefinite memories. Some may argue that to reduce the Israeli / Palestinian conflict to the level of a fever dream does disservice to the centuries of anger, bitterness and violence, but for me it’s this precise quality that best represents how protracted the conflict is and that because of this, for many, the difference is no longer totally political but instinctual, primal and mythical.

Over the course of these six years we are introduced to the more dynamic figures of the non-violent protest movement. Central to this, whom everyone else orbits are Adeeb and ‘El Phil’ The former indignant in anger and openly antagonistic to the Israeli military, the latter a gentle, charismatic giant, a Pied Piper figure who attracts the local children in a continuous dance of eternal optimism and good hearted generosity. Watching Adeeb explode in the faces of his oppressors or ‘El Phil’ lead the village’s children on a protest march truly conveys with absolute potency, ideals that best express what we as humans should be striving for. Both of them immensely stirring and invigorating in their fearlessness. And as such, it makes the violence directed towards them even more distressing. Over the course of 90 minutes we watch as they and the other protesters are arrested, beaten, gassed, shot and killed. One death in particular, captured in real time where we witness the victim move from a state of impassioned activity to slumped prone on the dusty ground via the neat and tidy sting of a bullet, is so sudden and fleeting that it serves as probably the most shocking and potent reminder of just how vulnerable humans are.

In contrast to this though we have Gibreel, who serves as a tiny, curious beacon amongst the chaos. In the workshop that followed the screening, the co-director Guy Davidi who’s primary role was to give structure and narrative to the footage, spoke about how the film was explicitly structured around the conceit of Gibreel’s growth in relation to the decay of the world around him. How as he grows, the Olive trees, the villages primary source of income, are systematically burnt down by the Israeli settlers. That’s not to say that the dichotomy between growth and decay is absolute and some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments stems from the corruption of Gibreel’s education. We watch as the first words he learns are ‘wall’ and ‘army’ and how once he’s in the latter years of infancy asks almost incongruously that his father should ‘kill the soldiers with a knife.’ Ultimately though it’s his innocence, his curiosity of the world and his unbridled glee that ends up defining both him and the film entire.

After the film, Guy Davidi spoke at length about numerous facets of the film’s production. What proved most startling, which in retrospect was misguided on my part, was how much the film actually deviates from the ideological connotations that the technology posits. As a rule, we as watchers perceive the hand-held, low grade aesthetic as synonymous with realism – that we are watching life unfold before our eyes. Which is obviously a trick – not necessarily a devious one, but still a fallacy. What Guy went onto to explain was how they devised the structure of the film and how they went onto achieve this. Guy’s involvement begins about three to four years after Emad started shooting. The project at that point had no purpose beyond its own existence – it was ‘a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’  After hearing of Emad’s attempts to document the non-violent protest movement in Bilin through mutual connections, Guy came to view the footage and after some persuasion agreed to help sculpt a film from it. What Guy introduced was a sense of poetic license, where a structure for the film was devised and then additional footage was shot to ‘fill in the gaps.’ For example, once Gibreel was decided on as a focal point, more footage of him was filmed, which could then be cut in further back down the line – essentially faking a 5 year old Gibreel for a 3 year old version. Other footage that was faked for the camera includes when Gibreel hands an Olive branch to an Israeli soldier.  And further stylisations can be found in the editing, where Guy decided that the structure should be almost ‘Beckettian,’ where there is an unstoppable regurgitation of protest and bloodshed cycling round and round – its cast trapped by events out of their control. The reality of course was that the lives of the people of Bil’in weren’t as compounded as they appear in the film and that there was day to day activity separate from the protests that’s only briefly touched on.

What are we to think then? The film’s power derives from a combination of our own presumptions based on the film’s supposed ‘realism’ and the fact that these beliefs are forged in the split blood and bruised flesh of the villagers.. When Guy candidly spoke about the manipulation involved I was initially and embarrassingly indignant that their integrity and the ‘realness’ of their plight had somehow been tarnished through the act of enforcing an aesthetic. However I was admittedly wrong, forgetting that ‘realism’ when placed through any lens ceases to exist. The very act of filming anything is already a step once removed from reality anyway, the camera itself an implement of provocation that stirs in people reactions, emotions and stances they may not have once the camera is put away. What documentaries should perhaps strive for is closer to the Herzogian idea of ‘ecstatic truth,’ the idea whereby reality is redefined in emotional terms rather than factual ones and one of 5 Broken Cameras most notable claims is that it does this without compromising its integrity. Instead it perhaps achieves a higher truth, where the film’s temporal manipulations place us in a more accurate emotional mindset than the pretensions of the ‘real’ ever could.

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