Comfortable Symbols: The Suffering Palestinian and the Good Israeli
One of the most poignant scenes in 5 Broken Cameras, the documentary I co-directed with Emad Burnat, is when Emad films his four children crossing the separation barrier built in the Palestinian village of Bil’in in the West Bank. In this scene, Emad concentrates on filming the barrier itself as his children enter the frame. His youngest son, Gibreel, then age 2, utters his first on-screen words: “wall,” “army,” and “rubber bullet.” Emad creates a portrait of the occupation, and his family becomes a pretext for this political reality.
Long before Gibreel learns to define himself as a child, he sees himself as a person in a relationship to the political elements around him. And it is not until he’s 6, near the end of the film, that he defines himself as “Gibreel,” by writing his own name on the barrier. In other words, his personal identity only emerges after his connection to the political world has been defined—and in this way, political language dominates his inner voice.
My intention during the making of 5 Broken Cameras was to tease out Emad’s inner voice from the layers of political language obfuscating it. This film deals with political subjects in a politicized reality, but its language doesn’t come from the political world. It’s a language that borders on the spiritual world and that of the soul. For years political discourse has been robbing us of opportunities to have complex debates about our lives and reducing our ability to bring invention and creativity to our actions in the world.
I entered into this partnership with Emad knowing that our work would be interpreted according to a set of idealized assumptions, and through my participation, I implicitly agreed to be part of this narrative.
Within our partnership, Emad is cast in the role of the “suffering Palestinian,” and I in the role of the “good Israeli”; he must speak in the language of the victim, and I in the language of solidarity and self-criticism. This creates a comfortable symbol and romanticized hopes; these are the rules of the game. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the personal cost of abiding by these rules.
In our film, Emad is using a language that does not wallow in suffering and in that way he becomes a powerful inspiration. And my role and the role of the Israeli activists are presented in a modest way, as a political choice, in order to make up for years in which Israelis dominated the discourse about occupation.
Political language alone can't advance this discussion beyond certain loops. What happens when political symbols face the test of a complex reality? Or when your relationship to a work of art, and to the world, is diminished in order to maintain a certain idealized image? The stereotypes that conservative circles cultivate are under constant criticism by the left, but who will challenge the "anti-stereotypes" the global left creates in response? We’ve been stuck in this cyclical discourse for decades, and these kind of political correct filters stifle our ability to communicate.
In this maze of constant restereotyping, everything that does not fit the political language is dismissed, so I find myself left with many questions: What is the role of the ego in political relations? What is the true function of anger and its capacity for change? Can social and political responsibility grow from guilt? How does suffering become a political currency? Can an emphasis on struggle and resistance distract us from new inventive approaches to change?
Through the painful process of creating a film and watching it be co-opted by political forces, I am all too familiar with the need to trade restrictive political language for nonjudgmental language that allows for the harsh complexities of reality; language that recognizes that in each person is an oppressor and an oppressed, and that each person has a responsibility to heal himself where he is the victim and where he is the oppressor.
After creating 5 Broken Cameras, I stopped believing in the politically correct. It is time for a new language.