“By healing, you resist oppression.” That is what Emad Burnat learned after six years of filming the nonviolent resistance of the people of the West Bank village of Bil’in. They were working to remove an Israeli fence and get back their stolen land. In his film Five Broken Camera, he tells his story. It is personal film making, more like Sherman’s March than Harlan County, USA. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is Sherman’s March set inside Harlan County, USA. And that is its brilliance.
The politics of the film is very clear, and in many ways the least interesting part of the film. A lot of things are very clear in the film. The Palestinians and the Israelis are the same people. Culturally, they are almost identical. Watching the conflict is like watching a family feud. Unfortunately, it is a feud where one side of the family has a really powerful army. What’s also clear is that many of the Israelis have dehumanized the Palestinians. What they are doing to these people is unconscionable. I understand that the Israelis are fearful; I understand that there is a lot of history; I understand that Palestinians haven’t always been the best partners. (Nor have the Israelis, but that’s another matter.) But do these Palestinians in Bil’in deserve this? It doesn’t seem like it.
The Personal and the Political
The film simultaneously chronicles the resistance movement and the development of Burnat’s youngest son, Gibreel. Through the early years, Gibreel doesn’t have much access to the protests. Then he begins seeing them from afar. He admits to his mother that he is afraid. In fact, there are many times during the film that Burnat tells his son to not be afraid of the Israeli soldiers; they are everywhere. But then Burnat’s good friend Phil, who is beloved by all the local children, is shot and killed. Gibreel is sad and angry. He asks his father why he doesn’t kill the soldiers with a knife. His father asks him why he is angry and his son replies, “Because they killed Phil.” It isn’t hard to see where the anger comes from. Phil was killed while nonviolently protesting.
During the course of the film, Burnat is arrested twice. Once, he is jailed for a long time. And this is the interesting part: it is never clear why. What he lives under is marshal law. The military apparently arrest people just because they have crossed some vague line of annoyance. One of Burnat’s arrest is for allegedly throwing rocks. They eventually drop charges because they “lost” the evidence. A lot of people seem to be arrested for this charge, because it is the one concrete thing the military has: kids, especially, do throw rocks. But this illustrates very nicely the entire Israel-Palestine conflict. Palestinians are arrested for throwing rocks at the soldiers. The soldiers have body armor, tear gas, and semiautomatic rifles. And when they use these weapons, nothing seems to happen to them. The law, it seems, is only meant for some.
Beyond Politics: Five Broken Camera
Five Broken Camera ends with a poignant scene. Burnat has at last gotten what looks like a hundred staples removed from his chest due to an accident he was in. Afterward, since they are in Israel, they go to the beach. Gibreel is seen happily splashing around in the water. Burnat asks him, “Why are you so happy?” And he replies, “The sea!” It is the last line in the film. Despite everything, we live our lives. There is happiness and pain. There is love and hatred. And sometimes, if we are very lucky, there is an afternoon at the sea.