Five Broken Cameras uses the very danger of its filming as its structure. The director and cameraman is Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer in a small village of energetic, resilient people. He first bought a video camera shortly after the birth of Gibreel, his youngest child, a pleased father wanting to grab memories for proud parents hold dear. It’s around this time Israeli developers began moving in, slowly but surely taking over more and more Palestinian territory. The village of farmers is finding land, livelihoods, subsumed by an ever-closer wall, by concrete buildings that appear seemingly overnight. There are peaceful protests beaten back violently by patrols from the Israeli armed forces. There are negotiations, legal challenges, and unease in the streets. Burnat is there to capture it all with his camera, even finding himself in the line of fire. One harrowing image finds a bullet shot straight into the camera and, with a scary-soft pop, the consumer-grade digital image buzzing away into terrifying computerized noise.
Burnat, with co-director Guy Davidi, follows the conflict as a backdrop for the child’s growth. We are watching home videos that add up to a portrait of a family, which in turn reflects the values of this close-knit village, which in turn reveals larger truths about the vast majority of Palestinian people. Rather than foregrounding political points, Burnat has a made a deeply humanistic, in some ways apolitical, film, arguing at its core for basic human rights, human decency, and the right to be heard. His narration, soft-spoken and melodious, takes us through everyday life, watching an adorable little boy explore the world around him. He toddles through the village with happiness, crossing through the checkpoints at the wall unaware of the menacing nature of it all, kicking at an exploded husk of a smoke bomb as if it were just another piece of nature resting in the soil.
Repeatedly, we return with Burnat to a shot of his five broken cameras, smashed, scrapped, shot, stomped, and shattered, placed in a row on his table, a physical record of the film’s making. The passing of time while watching the film can be measured not only by the age of Burnat’s children, but by the number of cameras we’ve seen destroyed, by the steady improvement in the tangible pictorial qualities of each new camera. It’s a perfect visual metaphor not only for the hazards of the film’s creation, but also for what the film represents: increased clarity through great danger. We see protests and violence from the Middle East in the media of the United States, but rarely are we afforded the chance to see it so personally, to comprehend it at a visceral ground level, to understand the overwhelming cycle of pain and perseverance from a first-person point-of-view. When Gibreel is only four years old, Israeli forces senselessly kill a beloved member of the village while he is peacefully protesting. This sweet little boy is heartbroken, his brow furrowing as he wishes harm upon the soldiers. He’s comforted, helped through his emotions, but the power of the pain, and the truth it reveals, lingers throughout this uniquely powerful film.