If I had to pick the essential documentary about the Palestinian struggle among the six very strong ones I’ve seen, the honors would go to “5 Broken Cameras” that opens today at the Film Forum in New York. It is exactly the sort of message that is helping to change peoples’ minds about the Middle East and deserves the widest audience.
The film derives its title from the 5 video cameras that co-director Emad Burnat has used over the years to document the struggle of his fellow villagers in Bil’in, one of the most combative in the West Bank, against Zionist settlers. Tear gas pellets or bullets that Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately into crowds of protestors damaged most of the cameras. None of this, nor frequent house arrest, has dissuaded Burnat from soldiering on.
Burnat has an instinctive feel for cinematic transcendence, something that life under occupation rather than film school workshops can only make possible. His first camcorder was a simple affair of the kind that you take on a vacation and that he purchased to photograph his four children who are major subjects in the film, along with his wife Soraya. Under normal conditions, that is what a camcorder is used for, after all. But when ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers arrived at a state-sponsored high-rise in Bil’in, his fellow villagers relied on his film documentation of the abuses associated with occupation.
The abuses are enough to get anybody to consider the rightness of the BDS cause. The Hasidim’s brutality and arrogance will remind you of nothing else but newsreels of the Gestapo pushing around Jews in the 1930. When you see an “observant” Jew punching a nonviolent Palestinian protestor in the face, you wish for a latter-day Jeremiah to tell them “how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine.”
The Israeli soldiers are just as bad. They stand impassively on the road protecting the settlers, heavily armed and utterly lacking in humanity. Some of the more poignant scenes in “5 Broken Cameras” involve the Palestinian protestors getting in the soldiers’ faces and demanding that they act like human beings.
Bil’in is a small farming village whose main crop is the olive tree. One of the most horrifying scenes in the documentary shows the charred olive trees that were left by a settler arson attack in the middle of the night. As a powerful contrast, you see Burnat’s youngest son presenting an Israeli soldier with an olive branch. He takes it without any apparent recognition of his own violation of what the branch symbolizes through his daily actions.
Not every Israeli is a thug. We meet a good number who have come to Bil’in in solidarity, including one older man who bestows a fairly professional looking camera on Burnat. At one point, the Israeli is shot in the face by a tear gas pellet just barely missing an eye. We also see many internationalists who have rallied around the cause of Palestine just as an earlier generation rallied around the Spanish Republic.
One of the more noteworthy Israelis standing on the side of humanity is Burnat’s co-director Guy Davidi, who was an activist with Indymedia. His first documentary was “Interrupted Streams” that dealt with the Zionist theft of Palestinian water just as the latest deals with land theft.
Throughout the film, you hear Emad Burnat’s voice as he speaks eloquently about his tribulations and his hopes. Like other Palestinians, there is a note of weariness and fatalism as they see the Zionist juggernaut in action but notwithstanding that they always find a way to demonstrate their opposition to it. Perhaps no other people on earth symbolize Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” more graphically than the villagers of Bil’in.
In the press kit from Kino Lorber, there’s a section that deals with the 5 cameras of the title. Here’s the story on the third, something that should give you a feel for the intense nature of this year’s most compelling documentary by far:
Gibreel is now three years old, and Emad takes his kid to see the demonstrations by himself – with a third camera on his shoulders. On that day, Gibreel saw his neighbors being arrested, including one of Emad’s brothers – as the soldiers were entering more and more into the village and began taking people from their houses.
After that, soldiers entered into the village and arrested children from their homes – for throwing rocks in the demonstrations. In the morning, the kids went to demonstrate together. They cried: “We want to sleep”. But the violence continues and an Israeli activist was hurt by a bullet in the head. In his house, the kids speak about brochures the army distributed to warn people not to go and demonstrate. Soraya then had to explain to them that they had to continue resisting. And the soldiers continued to look for children to arrest.
One night, they came into Emad’s house while he was filming. Emad was taken to the police, and then, kept in jail and house arrest. In a house far from Bil’in, Emad was locked alone, accused of throwing rocks but actually punished for filming. At the end, the army dropped all charges, as they claimed lack of evidence. When he is out, Emad went directly to filming, and his third camera was again, shot at and hit. The bullet, still inside the camera, is a proof to life’s fragility.
Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, I suppose I should say a few words about the truly rancid “U.N. ME”, a title that is supposed to sound like “You and Me”, a sample of director Ami Horowitz’s lame sense of humor.
I had a feeling that this would be a rightwing screed but watched it out of curiosity. I had never seen a conservative documentary before and wondered if it would be half as amusing as a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh or the like. I don’t mind rightwing crapola in small doses, just as a way of reminding me how far off a revolution in the USA is.
Horowitz used to be an investment banker—no surprise there. The film is a diatribe against the U.N. utilizing all the expected talking points about how it is a “den of iniquity”, to use Lenin’s description of the League of Nations, but its iniquity is based on a mixture of self-seeking corruption of the kind that only a professional diplomat is capable of and coddling of terrorists and Islamic governments, Iran’s especially.
Horowitz, a truly off-putting character, has appropriated Michael Moore’s shtick wandering around the U.N. or the offices of various diplomats looking for a chance to make them look foolish. Instead, it is he who looks stupid.
While I have little use for the government of Sudan, there is one scene that encapsulates the dimwittedness of the director. He asks a government spokesman why there was so much killing in the south. When the man starts off by putting it into context by referring to global warming, the jackass director tries to make a joke about the whole thing, asking whether peace in Darfur will come if we all start driving Priuses.
One can’t imagine Ami Horowitz ever reading anything but the NY Post, but if he took the trouble, he could have learned that the Sudanese official was not far off from the truth:
The fighting in Darfur is usually described as racially motivated, pitting mounted Arabs against black rebels and civilians. But the fault lines have their origins in another distinction, between settled farmers and nomadic herders fighting over failing lands. The aggression of the warlord Musa Hilal can be traced to the fears of his father, and to how climate change shattered a way of life.
Until the rains began to fail, the sheikh’s people lived amicably with the settled farmers. The nomads were welcome passers-through, grazing their camels on the rocky hillsides that separated the fertile plots. The farmers would share their wells, and the herders would feed their stock on the leavings from the harvest. But with the drought, the farmers began to fence off their land—even fallow land—for fear it would be ruined by passing herds. A few tribes drifted elsewhere or took up farming, but the Arab herders stuck to their fraying livelihoods—nomadic herding was central to their cultural identity. (The distinction between “Arab” and “African” in Darfur is defined more by lifestyle than any physical difference: Arabs are generally herders, Africans typically farmers. The two groups are not racially distinct.)
Now, that would be a good topic for a documentary, how the violence in Darfur really got started. For that you need a brain, like the directors of “5 Broken Cameras” have, as opposed to the cabbage between Ami Horowitz’s ears.