IN 2005 Emad Burnat was given a video camera to record the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel. It was while he dutifully chronicled the formative years of his son that Mr Burnat unexpectedly became the film-maker behind «Five Broken Cameras», a sombre documentary about the struggle of his native West Bank village of Bil’in against Israel’s construction of the separation wall.
The film’s premiere in the Palestinian territories took place recently at the Ramallah Cultural Palace, a multimillion-dollar centre unmatched in its size and facilities in the territories. The audience featured mainly young Palestinians and foreign expatriates, a common mix in a city that has become the West Bank’s administrative capital.
Running at nearly two hours, the documentary can be difficult to watch. Mr Burnat’s footage includes some fatal encounters with Israeli soldiers and his own sadness over his son’s loss of innocence. Gibreel swiftly learns words like «army» and «cartridge» and is seen playing with spent tear-gas canisters.
Bursts of clapping and cheers echoed through the 700-seat hall during the screening. Emotions ran high at the sight of Mr Burnat’s father mounting an Israeli jeep in protest against the detention of another son, and during scenes of young Palestinians hurling stones at Israeli military vehicles. An especially wrenching moment shows a villager hugging his ancient olive trees, which are later torched by Israeli settlers.
A tenacious amateur cameraman, Mr Burnat keeps filming as tear gas rains down on him, and when a friend, bound and blindfolded, is shot in the leg at close range by an Israeli soldier. He mixes harrowing events with peaceful protests and glimmers of hope. One way or another, five different cameras are destroyed—by a tear-gas canister, a bullet or an old-fashioned punch—as life in Bil’in moves on.
“The camera makes me feel like I am protected,” Mr Burnat says against footage of soldiers beating Palestinian protesters, “but I know this is an illusion.” The film has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Mr Burnat and his son Gibreel were met with a standing ovation after the Ramallah screening. But some in the audience criticised Mr Burnat for partnering with Guy Davidi, an Israeli director, to create the film (pictured above). “Why couldn’t you partner with anyone else?” asked one man after the film. Mr Burnat explained that he had reached out to Palestinian funders for support, but to no avail. “This film is Palestinian,” he stressed. “Davidi is a peace activist who participated in the weekly protests.”
The documentary dispels some romantic myths about non-violent resistance, revealing it to be a brutal endeavour with some grim consequences. The film ends as it begins, panning over Mr Burnat’s five broken cameras, as he declares: “I film to heal.”