Shot largely by local man Emad Burnat on the titular quintet of wrecked rigs, docu “Five Broken Cameras” is an undeniably powerful record of the Palestinian village of Bil’in’s course of civil disobedience from 2005 to the present, as the residents collectively resist the building of Israeli settlements. Co-helmed by Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi, the pic is also shamelessly sentimental and manipulative in its construction, never resisting a chance to throw up images of saucer-eyed toddlers asking questions like, “Why did the soldiers kill my friend?” Double whammy of pro-Palestinian polemic and film-about-filmmaking subject matter will ensure many more fest bookings.
Although originally an agricultural laborer, Burnat found himself short of work when the Israelis started snatching land away from his village for a housing development. Along with most of Bil’in, Burnat protests the construction work, accompanied by his brothers (Eyad, Riyad, Khaled and Jafar) and their friends, the Abu-Rahma brothers (joker Phil, firebrand Adeeb and gentle Daba). With his first camera, bought to record the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel, Burnat films the workers bulldozing Bil’in’s olive trees to construct a barrier wall, thus beginning a new career as the village’s semi-official documentarian.
As the years pass and Gibreel grows — his first words are “wall,” “cartridge” and “army” — Burnat keeps filming the increasingly violent clashes with the Israeli Defense Force along the wall. Although sympathetic protesters from Israel and around the world come to support the people of Bil’in, the new settlements go up, the wall doesn’t come down despite court orders, and friends are arrested and killed. The destruction of each camera reps a chapter marker of sorts, all of them damaged in scuffles or even shot, sometimes taking bullets that otherwise would have killed Burnat.
Voiceover by Burnat himself, done in a cool, melancholy monotone, helps to add narrative structure, but some auds might wonder what important bits of information have been left out in editing down some 500 hours of footage, or where Burnat got the other cameras, which become increasingly expensive as the story progresses.
For the most part, the docu depicts the villagers as simple-hearted, heroic peasants fighting for an unquestionably just cause; unlike the more sophisticated chronicle of resistance “Burma VJ,” it pays scant attention to the larger political context or, indeed, the strategies and tactics of protest in an age that offers sophisticated means of media management. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit, however, that they do include a scene in which Burnat’s long-suffering wife, Soraya, begs him to give up all this filming and think about how his family will survive if he goes to jail again.
Given the pic’s means of production, lensing is understandably amateurish in the early running, which only enhances the air of authenticity, especially when visible digital artifacts evince camera damage. Folksy score by Le Trio Joubran adds effective emotional cues, but is arguably too on-the-nose with its plaintive melodies and mournful minor chords. Editing by Veronique Lagoarde-Segot and co-helmer Davidi is nevertheless immaculate, and reps the pic’s strongest tech credit.