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5 Broken Cameras

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5 Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras is one of the most effective pieces of propaganda filmmaking I've ever seen. Its success, apart from the You Are There access to one of the world's notorious trouble spots, is its willingness to let the footage speak for itself. It would have tugged on many more heartstrings if there were ubiquitous music swells, slow motion, held close-ups on crying children. But that's the movies. 5 Broken Cameras, by and large, is real life.

The film is the diary of Emad Burnat, a Palestinian in the West Bank village of Bil'in. Three important things happen to him on 2005. He has a son, a huge Israeli housing settlement starts construction nearby and, because he has no job prospects in this economically choked-off community, he picks up a handicam and starts taping everything.

At first we meet his family and neighbors, but more and more we see the modern, sprawling apartment complexes going up nearby. The settlement rips up the land and requires a vexing system of security measures. Where there once were olive trees there is now barbed wire and cement walls.

Burnat doesn't really have an agenda at first, but as his village begins to coalesce in resistance he finds himself becoming more and more. . .I won't say radicalized, but I will say involved.

As non-violent demonstrations lead to midnight pranks, there are eventually full-on demonstrations. That's where the title comes in. At five different times over five years, Burnat gets his camera busted. Sometimes grabbed, other times shot. Indeed, if it weren't for the camera acting as a physical shield, he'd be dead right now.

The camera no doubt acts as an emotional shield, as well. Since there are no jobs, everyone seems to be in the resistance business, and Burnat always has something to shoot. It is commonplace to go to jail for a while, and while Burnat's wife will take the kids to protests (knowing full well tear gas grenades will be thrown) she eventually reaches her limit and begs her husband to stop filming. You've seen the scene in Hollywood movies a thousand times - the wife begs the husband to stop being a hero. The way its done here, low-key, while making the bed and with no tears, would make a theater director throw up his hands. And that's why it's so heartbreaking and effective.

In addition to the gimmick of waiting for each new camera to get broken (and I must admit that, with each hurled rock, you wonder “is camera 3 gonna bite it now?”) we watch the continuing development of Burnat's young son. This is a kid literally growing up in a war zone, who sees soldiers with guns every day and knows that they will use them. (“Why don't you stab them with your knife?” the little boy asks Dad. “Because they will shoot me,” he replies, just a short time after one of his best friends is killed.)

This is a place where the blending of the political and personal reaches a molecular level. As someone who supports Israel's right to exist (if I may, too, get personal) there was a part of me ready to argue back about historical context, how there are two sides to every story, or that a tremendous percentage of Israelis do not support these encroaching settlements. But that's not what this movie is. This movie is an assembly of footage, of this man's experience, and no amount of political semantics can alter that.

5 Broken Cameras was, however, co-financed by an Israeli film company, and, indeed, its co-director (Guy Davidi) is Israeli. If you listen real close you'll hear a passing reference to the fact that there are a few Israeli sympathizers in the protest, and there is one sequence where the Palestinian Authority mucky-mucks are presented as what they are – politicians. Furthermore, there had to have been some developments in Burnat's story edited out. Toward the end he is seen wearing a fluorescent jacket that says "Press" - so at some point he stopped just being a "man with a camera." It doesn't really matter, but it reminds us that, yes, despite the fly-on-the-wall tone, this is a film that is sculpted for maximum impact.

I can't lie that it didn't concern me that the Israeli soldiers are shown merely as voiceless, faceless monsters. I've read enough to know that a large percentage of the Israeli Defense Forces loathe providing “security” to these settlements – settlements that are built by religious nutcases with the specific intent of stirring up trouble – settlements that are anathema to the secular Jewish socialist state that Theodor Hertzl dreamed about.

Then again, that's my perception, that's what I'm bringing to this film. Emad Burnat's five year old kid only knows that he can't go swimming. Or rather, he can only go on the day he's got the proper entry visas for visiting a family member in the hospital, and after a series of lengthy, dehumanizing checkpoints.

The politics aside (if that's possible) 5 Broken Cameras is another example of how new technology has let a story loose that would have been impossible to tell a decade ago. It is a remarkable achievement, and a reminder that one determined man really can make an impact in the world.

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