5 Broken Cameras
(2011) Distributed by Kino Lorber
Produced and Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, English subtitles;
5 Broken Cameras is Palestinian film-maker Emad Burnat’s diary of his fellow villagers’ protest response to Israel’s security fence and to Jewish settlements on what he considers his land. Hailed as an artistic success, the film won an award at the prestigious Sundance Festival. The film alternates between scenes of protest activity and Burnat’s family life viewed through five successive video cameras. However, the Israeli soldiers, unwilling participants in the film, contend that the most controversial scenes were fabricated. The soldiers point out that the film editors joined together frames taken at different events to create the false appearance of Israeli soldiers using violence against demonstrators without provocation.
In response to the praise heaped on the film by reviewers at film festivals, Israel’s Channel 10, in March 2013, interviewed soldiers involved in the most controversial scenes. The soldiers expressed dismay that they were depicted as prone to violence against peaceful demonstrators, insisting that in reality they exercised considerable restraint, only resorting to force when the demonstrators pelted them with rocks or attempted to tear down the security fence. They were particularly incensed that the film showed their faces exposing them to potential retribution.
Ya’akov, an Israeli soldier, responding to an unsettling scene showing him and several fellow soldiers pouncing upon a Palestinian activist who lies helpless on the ground, explained,
“Now notice this. He is lying on the ground – shouts whatever he shouts, protests, and in another second, look what happens… a group of soldiers jumped on him. But … it’s not the same frame…And you can see me arrest him…The whole thing is not true… It’s not that he lay on the ground and didn’t do anything, and a pile of soldiers jumped on him and then he was arrested. It wasn’t even close [to what really happened].”
To the interviewer’s retort that the film footage is genuine, Pavel, an Israeli officer, contended “The story isn’t authentic. That’s the problem. You’re fooling the people.”
Viewing a scene where the soldiers charge the crowd using rubber bullets and canisters of tear gas, they point out an important clue: the changing attire worn by both the protesters and the soldiers in different frames. This is evidence that the film editors joined together footage from separate demonstrations to make it appear as one event. By combining frames of soldiers responding forcefully to violent demonstrators with frames of peaceful protesters beating a retreat, the film editors create the impression that the Israeli soldiers initiated the violence rather than in response to stones hurled at them by demonstrators.
The Audience Only Sees the Palestinian Perspective
The film shows both Israeli soldiers and settlers as bullies with no regard for the Palestinians’ rights. In a scene typical of the film, Adeeb, one of Bil’in’s activists, is shot by a rubber bullet in the leg. He yells at the soldiers, “Why do that, are you crazy?” There is no answer. The film concludes with the tragic killing of Bassem Abu-Rahma, depicted as committed to non-violent protests, who was shot at close range with a tear gas canister. An Israeli military investigation determined that the killing was accidental, although some dispute this finding. But the film misleads its audience. In reality the soldiers operate under well-defined rules of engagement. These rules are announced to the protesters. Not shown in the film, but shown in the interview program is footage of an Israeli officer informing demonstrators by megaphone, “No stone throwing. No crossing the yellow gate. No damaging the fence. Throwing stones or damaging the fence will oblige us to react.”
In another scene with Jewish settlers, Burnat protests “We’re non-violent there is no need for violence… In the end they beat us all up.” Such scenes invert the reality of the conflict. Even before the State of Israel was established, the Arab answer to the arrival of Jews from Europe was violence. Annihilating the Jewish presence on the land has been the stated goal of all major Palestinian political movements and enunciated by every significant Palestinian Arab leader from the 1920s to this day. Even today under circumstances where Israel possesses crushing military superiority, Palestinians still commemorate those who murdered Jews in terrorist attacks by naming city squares, schools and sports teams after them and hold these terrorists up as role models for their young to emulate. The statistics on violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians belie the image of the Jews as most prone to belligerence. Since 2001, ten Jewish settlers have been murdered by Palestinians for every Palestinian killed by a settler.
Burnat’s words about “turn[ing] anger into something positive” imparts a message with different meanings to those who contend with the Palestinians’ unyielding goal to undo what they consider the catastrophe of Israel’s establishment. Even scenes of his family life reveal a commitment to immersing his children into a culture of vengeance against the Israelis. One can easily see that these children will grow up, as have their parents, committed to their cause, resenting Israel and all its successes, but without the skills or education needed to propel their own society forward. Tellingly, when Burnat is injured in an automobile accident, he seeks critical treatment from Israeli doctors in an Israeli hospital.
Fabricating incidents through tricky editing is a frequent feature of pro-Palestinian film footage. The most famous example was the Mohammed al-Durra incident in September 2000, disseminated by French journalist Charles Enderlin, that purported to show a Palestinian boy and his father pinned against a wall and then shot by Israeli troops during a gun battle. Years later, as a result of a lawsuit, French television handed over unseen portions of the film footage, the contents of which raised serious questions about whether the incident was genuine.
Sympathetic audiences and film critics are unfazed by how such techniques influence viewer perceptions and unconcerned with how these docudramas blur the distinction between fact-based documentaries and propagandistic works. The prevailing sentiment in the independent film community holds as an a
rticle of faith that Palestinians are only to be seen as victims and Israelis and the Zionist movement as villains.
This also helps explain why so many Israelis can be found in the ranks of pro-Palestinian film-makers, as was the case with 5 Broken Cameras. The film is a joint effort of Palestinian Imad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi and was funded by the Israeli Fund for Cinema and Television.
Gidon Ganani, manager of Makor Fund for Cinema and Television Films bluntly stated, “If you make a pro-Zionist film, which is well made and shows our rights to this country, the chance for that film to be accepted to a festival– apart from some Jewish festival– is very slim.”
Why was the Fence Built?
5 Broken Cameras fails to acknowledge a cause and effect relationship between Palestinian behavior and Israeli measures imposed on the Palestinian population. Since the audience is provided only the Palestinian perspective, it is left with an incomplete understanding of the situation. No coherent explanation is given as to why Israel built the fence.
From late 2000-2002, Palestinian terrorist groups unleashed a horrific suicide bombing campaign targeting ordinary Israelis as they rode on buses, waited at bus stops, ate at restaurants and celebrated Jewish holidays in banquet halls. Israel’s leadership was compelled to act to prevent further fraying of the fabric of normal Israeli life. Initially, the idea of a security fence was not popular among Israeli political leaders, but they could come up with no better alternative to stop the infiltration of sucide bombers.
Since the film presents Israeli security fence only as an imposition on the Palestinian population; it is easily misportrayed as part of a scheme to grab land. The fence is a defensive measure, actually less intrusive than Israeli measures taken prior to its construction. Prior to the fence, Israel periodically had to conduct intrusive military operations into Palestinian towns and cities to strike at terrorist bases. The added security of the fence and checkpoints has allowed Israel to scale back its incursions, saving lives on both sides.
The unwillingness of the film-makers and those who sympathize with their agenda to grapple with the core issues is illustrated by the carnival-like demonstrations against the fence that draw activists from affluent European and North American countries. Images of the festive mood at these demonstrations, as activists mill about in costumes, waving placards, blowing horns, has elicited the label of protest tourism. The film-makers bask in the international attention. Burnat exclaims, “a day of demonstration in the village is better than a wedding.” But there is no retrospection over the role these tourist-activists play in stirring up anger and animosity that culminates in violent confrontations. Having indulged their impulses, the foreigners will return home, leaving Israelis and Palestinians to deal with the permanent reality of their conflict.
Similarly, the issue of Jewish settlement is presented in a one-sided manner that will not enhance audience understanding of the issue. Jewish settlement is presented as a land grab akin to European colonialists expropriating native American land. The Palestinians are depicted as having unquestioned ownership of the land. The complex history of competing claims, including the long an unbroken presence of Jews on the land, is ignored.
But as important as the history is the contemporary impetus of population growth in a land with limited area to expand into. The West Bank (Samaria and Judea) is a natural destination for settlement of the Israeli population overflow from the overcrowded adjacent coastal strip and Jerusalem. Driven as much by community geographical considerations as politics, Jewish population expansion into the West Bank is a trend that is unlikely to turn around.
By only presenting the conflict from the Palestinian perspective the film will not foster understanding. Those whose sympathies lie with the Palestinians will feel validated in what they believe by what they see. Others may find the film compelling, but those who take a serious interest in finding a way out of the current impasse will see through its deceptions. The film’s one-sided message will most likely encourage further polarization of the two sides. Maybe that was the film-makers’ intent.