Sundance documentary 5 BROKEN CAMERAS

In 5 BROKEN CAMERAS, destroyed video cameras mark time across two parallel narratives: the struggle of the village of Bil’in against Israeli land theft and the birthdays of the filmmaker’s son.

Emad, the filmmaker, gets his first camera when his son is born, the same day Israeli bulldozers begin flattening the villagers’ lands for new Jewish settlements and the euphemistically-named separation wall. Emad begins documenting both.

He continues to record his son’s birthdays along with the villagers’ sustained nonviolent resistance to the illegal land theft and, in the process, has five cameras either smashed or shot out of his hands by Israeli soldiers. Emad learns quickly what war journalists know, that the cameras will not protect him—except for once when a bullet lodges in a camera instead of hitting him, destroying it, but saving his life.

For those who have never seen this conflict from the Palestinian point of view, this film will be shocking. It will be hard to believe that Israel, a country that pretends to be a paragon of Mid-East democracy can be so consistently barbaric, violent and racist. Unfortunately, for those of us who are familiar with Israel’s policy toward the Occupied Territories, it will be sadly familiar.

In April 2002, during he massive Israeli incursion/assault on the West Bank, I went there with the International Solidarity Movement as part of an international nonviolent intervention/witnessing force. I saw this type of behavior on the part of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) with my own eyes. Unprovoked violence, land expropriation, selective enforcement of laws, racism, brutal abuse of children and storm-trooper tactics against villagers by the Israelis are not unique to the village of Bil’in, nor are those tactics isolated incidents. It is widely-implemented policy and has been Israel’s standard treatment of Palestinians for decades.

What makes this film so powerful is the immediacy of the danger we feel looking through Emad’s lens, wondering when this camera will be destroyed like the previous ones. Or whether the next bullet will hit Emad and take us out with it—at least as viewers if not in the flesh and blood. We look down the big-screen barrel of more than one rifle in the course of the film and we watch as more than one person is shot and dies.

As someone familiar with these types of intense conflict situations, I want to point out a few things that you will see in the film as a way of debunking some of the common lies told by Israelis and their supporters to justify the level of violent repression—including cold-blooded murder—that we see in the film.

One reason that the action seems so intimate and terrifying is that Emad is right up next to the soldiers most of the time. Not just up near them, but behind them, looking over their shoulders, seeing his friends and family get shot from the soldiers’ points of view.

This is not only cinematically significant, but politically significant as well. The mainstream media usually describes these IDF/Palestinian conflicts in terms such as “clashes” or “battles,” implying two equally-culpable sides, connoting a sense of parity and shared culpability. The common response of the uninformed is a sense of powerlessness or confusion, expressed along the lines of, “why can’t those people just get along?” The truth is that Israel’s policy relies on violent assaults on Palestinians and violations of their basic human rights.

So, pay attention when you watch the film. In a firefight or other engagement where Israeli troops felt any real danger, they would never let Palestinians get behind them. Emad would not be standing behind or beside the IDF soldiers if the Palestinians were returning fire, since he could also be hit. The troops are shooting at Palestinian protesters from wide-open, standing positions, setting themselves up as perfect targets for Palestinian snipers—but there aren’t any. If the Palestinians were returning fire, the soldiers would not be standing, but crouching and taking cover behind trees or rocks.

The soldiers are not afraid because the Palestinians in the film are being nonviolent, presenting no threat of bodily harm to the Israelis. These are one-sided Israeli assaults on Palestinians, who are legitimately defending their land, families and human rights.

In some scenes, Palestinian youth throw rocks at the soldiers. It is always after the soldiers have attacked first. The most aggressive rock scenes occur at night, during violent Israeli raids on homes where they arrest children and adults on spurious charges. While you can argue the effectiveness of rock throwing on strategic grounds, only the most hard-headed racist ideologues could watch those scenes and somehow blame the Palestinians for the Israeli actions.

In the final tally, there is some victory for the villagers, but much more irreplaceable loss. I want to find a way to end by saying something hopeful, such as that this film will finally expose the unjust, brutal, illegal and violent actions of the IDF and Jewish settlers and lead to a solution, but I’m not hopeful. There have been many such films already. What we can take away is inspiration from the bravery of Emad and his people to continue the struggle for justice. Emad is valiantly refusing to back down, now shooting with camera number six, having outlived the previous five. How many cameras will be shot out of your hands before you decide to quit?

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