A few years ago, the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem distributed several hundred videocameras to Palestinians in the West Bank and asked them to record the daily abuses they experienced at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers. The group sensed that most Israelis had grown indifferent to the military dominion Israel has maintained over the Palestinians for 45 years now, a phenomenon B’Tselem hoped to reverse.
The project produced some arresting footage, including clips of unprovoked beatings and shootings, all offered to Israeli television networks for their news programs. But while editors found interest in some, they turned down many others. “The occupation has become kind of a nonissue for Israelis,” the director of the video project, Yoav Gross told me recently. “It’s a downer that you don’t really bring up at dinner because it will just ruin the conversation.”
A new documentary, 5 Broken Cameras, makes a similar endeavor to show Israelis and others what transpires on the other side of the divide, just a few miles from Tel Aviv. Shot by Palestinian journalist Emad Burnat over five years, it traces the lives of Bil’in residents in the West Bank during a period of mostly nonviolent protests, as Israel erects a separation barrier across land belonging to the village. The personal stories of Burnat, his son Gibreel, and a few other characters intersect with the harshness of Israel’s military rule in a storyline that manages to avoid sanctimony—the tiresome undertone of nearly all narratives here. But even with the film’s emphasis on plot over polemics and its almost dispassionate narration (in Arabic with subtitles), one gets the feeling that Israelis will not want to watch this movie. After so many failed attempts at peacemaking and so much bloodshed, most just aren’t in the mood for films about the occupation—a reality that, sadly, diminishes their impact.
Burnat gets his first videocamera with the birth of Gibreel in 2005. He shoots the boy’s initial steps and his first birthday party, but also ventures out to document Israel’s work on the barrier, which almost overnight divides residents from their farmland. As the protests get under way and the Israeli response becomes violent, Burnat goes through one camera after another: two are struck with live bullets as he’s filming; a third is hit with a teargas canister. The smashed-up gadgetry ends up forming a kind of chronology for the Bil’in campaign—and a symbolic monument to the casualties, including one of Burnat’s closest friends. “I got used to filming in dangerous situations,” Burnat told me last week, before leaving Bil’in for a screening of the film in London. “It was much harder to talk on camera about my personal life. I was worried that people might think I’m making myself into a hero.”
Even in the West Bank, the collaboration is sensitive. No distributor has stepped forward to work with the pair.
Two years ago, Burnat took the footage to his Israeli friend, filmmaker Guy Davidi. Together, they went through 700 tapes, assembled a three-minute trailer and started raising money for the film’s $250,000 budget in Europe, the U.S., and Israel. The collaboration seemed befitting of a movie aimed at deepening the understanding between the two sides. It was actually Davidi, the Israeli, who wrote Burnat’s first-person narration after long conversations about the film. He then had it translated to Arabic for Burnat to voice. But the partnership also caused problems. Organizers of a film festival in Egypt rejected the documentary for what Davidi believes could only have been Israeli involvement in the project. “They loved the film. It was a big surprise when they turned us down,” he told me. Even in the West Bank, the collaboration is sensitive. No distributor has stepped forward to work with the pair. On the bright side, an Israeli documentary channel is planning to air the film later this year. Other recent films of this genre, including the widely praised Budrus, never made it to Israeli television.
The movie ends with Bil’in residents celebrating an Israeli High Court decision to reroute the barrier away from their land and toward the 1967 line with Israel. But the victory is only partial. During the years residents fought for the modification, Jewish settlements across the valley from Bil’in expanded at a record pace. On both sides of the conflict, opinions have hardened (even among Israelis and Palestinians who support far-reaching compromises, few believe an agreement is possible these days). “It takes strength to turn anger into something positive,” Burnat says at one point in the film. If only Israelis could bring themselves to see it.