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Five Broken Cameras – Review


Directors: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Gibreel is born in the Palestinian village of Bil’in in 2005, the same year that Israeli bulldozers and JCBs – evidently not paid to fret about symbolism – tug up dozens of Bil’in’s olive trees and construct in their place a fence, far into village land. 

Gibreel takes his first steps as the quarrel between Bil’in villagers and Israelis on either side of this new barrier escalates. Other firsts, less run of the mill, follow for the boy. Before he reaches four he has inhaled his first lungful of tear gas, witnessed the first arrest of nearly all his adult male family members, and cowered from the first night raids on Bil’in by the Israeli Defence Force. He has also taken part in his first protest out by the fence, a toddlers-only affair organised by the villagers. If this film had been produced by MTV it would be called something like Growing Pains: West Bank style.

Thankfully, it’s wasn’t and it isn’t. Five Broken Cameras, winner of the 2012 Sundance World Documentary Award, is a masterpiece, the kind of film that takes an issue crusted over by politics and makes it human and compelling.

The director is Emad Burnat, Gibreel’s father, a Bil’een olive-farmer turned activist. He picked up a camera to record his son’s childhood and ended up filming one part of a saga that started with the foundation of Israel fifty-four years ago and isn’t likely to stop in either his lifetime or that of his son. He films 700 hours of footage over five years, much of it on the frontlines of protests. Five cameras do break, as the title suggests, but their fates – shot (twice), snatched, hit by a stun grenade – aren’t the kind covered by warranty.

However, despite the gutsiness of its creator and the Sundance Award, viewing figures for Five Broken Cameras probably won’t be high. As yet, a UK release date is uncomfirmed, even after the film was announced as winner of the Open City Doc Fest last month. This is a great shame. Weeding out why people might give Five Broken Cameras a miss, however, isn’t too difficult. First, suspicions of propaganda. Second, an experience of other documentaries on similar subjects as pious stuff unleavened by humour or visual flair. Third, the likelihood of encountering some harrowing material.

The first two can be discounted in this case. Emad’s beef is not with the concept of Israel as such, so much as the very real and very-difficult-to-cross fence that a group of Israelis have put on his village land. For the most part, he doesn’t buy into a rigid Pro-Palestine agenda. The man he chose to help turn his footage into a film, Guy Davidi, is a young Israeli. And those Palestinian politicians who visit Bil’een, in identikit dark glasses and shiny suits, he treats coldly.

What does interest Emad and Davidi – and what makes their film so good – is how a specific injustice shapes the course of a group of ordinary people’s lives. Baby Gibreel shares screen time with a group of Emad’s friends. We meet them as a cheerful bunch, one a gentle giant adored by the children of Bil’in, another an irrepressible loudmouth, the youngest a goofy type in a Che Guevara t-shirt. Initially, their protests out by the fence are fun and a bit farcical. Over the years, however, we see their energy drain away, their faces harden, and underdog-spirit replaced by desperation, fury and grief.

When the grief arrives it hits throat-tighteningly hard. Out filming a protest, Emad catches on camera the moment one of his friends is killed, shot through the neck by an Israeli soldier.

Anybody who saw Restrepo, the documentary tracking US soldiers in Afghanistan,will recall the waves of shock and nausea that witnessing a real death in cinematic format brings on. Here these are brought to a pitch, both by the nature of the killing – Emad’s friend is unarmed, as the protestors always are – and by how closely we have come to know the victim. Moments like this are challenging for the viewer.

But 5 Broken Cameras is a documentary, not  news-reporting, and callous though it might sound a great deal of artistic control and restraint has gone into making sure the death of Emad’s friend retains its power without rupturing the story’s arc. So, the calmer aftermath takes focus: a brother silently glueing martyr posters to village walls, Gibreel asking his father why he doesn’t kill the Israelis in revenge. As throughout, the tone remains stoic.

All reservations that might stop people going to see this film should be put aside. Yes, Five Broken Camera’s can be a traumatic viewing experience at times; but it is also an extraordinary work of art.



Clapham Junction’s “Revolution”

Clapham Junction’s “Revolution”

On one corner of the St. John’s road junction a bright red neon sign advertises a bar named “Revolution”, on the other youths are kicking in the windows of a J.D. Sports store and coming out with stacks of new sneakers. There’s about an equal level of political protest in the bar’s invitation to “join the party revolution!” and the activities of the looters, but nobody’s really on the look-out for irony here.

Streaming down the high-street are hooded, track-suited youths loaded down with stolen goods. A man carrying a tray of diamonds skips past. Another in a bandana follows him hefting an entire till. Later, a couple stroll by holding six packs of Pampers. Alarms are ringing everywhere and occasionally shop-front windows shatter. Nobody threatens observers, but a crazy-looking man in bright red trousers and a noddy-hat is told flat to stop filming as groups of looters clamber out of J.D. Sports. He’s sprayed a little with a fire hydrant as a warning and hops on a bicycle to wheel his particular flavour of mania elsewhere. The air is thicker with glee than menace; people don’t seem to believe quite how lucky they’re getting.

After an hour of looting, the police are still nowhere to be seen. Debenhams is already a shell. It’s odd to see so many things outside it that should be inside. Dozens of shoe-boxes and hundreds of clothes hangers are scattered across the pavement. It’s like the glass that separates consumer from goods has lost all value whatsoever, as if someone realised after all these years you can just go ahead and smash the stuff.

Two men who’ve travelled down from Birmingham are loitering in the cross-roads, their piercings and combat-tops are straight out of the Anarchist superstore and they’re keen to chat. Watching the last of any worthwhile loot being removed from Debenhams, one remarks “it’s o.k. them looting these big stores, but leave the little pubs and businesses out of it.” I take out my notepad and he immediately stops talking. Certainly, there’s no real sense of human cost watching a chain-store being pillaged. When four guys scramble out from under the barrier of an Orange shop clutching iPhone boxes and hollering, I’m more jealous than morally affronted.

At around 10:40 the carnival breaks up suddenly and spectacularly. Two police vans hurl into the junction and about three hundred people flee up Lavender Hill. Running with craned necks, a few notice that no police have got out of the vans. CCTV cameras crane insistently from store-fronts and lamp-posts, but there have been so many rioters – all dressed so similarly and carefully – their efforts look desperate and pathetic. The police vans that caused this sudden exodus turn back up the road they came down and those not carrying a hot new wardrobe follow them.
Further up St. John’s road the scene changes: scores of riot police with circular shields are huddled around their vans, apparently unsure what to do. They start to fan out across the width of the street but attention snaps backwards as shouts can be heard behind them. One man has been wrestled to the ground outside a Three store, another is being held by four police against a wall. Bottles start to crash down and, at last, somebody shouts “Fuck the Police”. A cluster of blue phone and camera-lights sprout up and the youtube footage of Ian Tomlinson unfairly comes to mind. The looter is groaning on the ground, now the victim, and the watching crowd seems hungry for more proof of police brutality. Someone starts shouting, loudly and quite unnecessarily, “Watch his face! Watch his face!”, as if they were about to baton it into a bloody sponge. There’s a ten-minute stand-off, the camera-wielders edging closer until another police cry of “missile!” scares them back, then the arrested youth is taken into the van and people disperse.

The heat feels like it’s moved elsewhere though camera crews are just arriving in their droves. A fat man in a bicycle helmet, apparently from the Washington Post, is talking to the conspicuously loopy bystander who got sprayed by the fire hydrant earlier. Their conversation is brief and ends with his interviewee exclaiming “Washington? Do you know I know the Roosevelts?” Meanwhile, BBC cameras film destroyed shop-fronts.

The police call out for people to clear the streets, but there are few left bar reporters, psychos and the insatiably curious. Then, without warning, they start to sprint towards us screaming “move!”  Everybody runs, but the older woman I was talking to falls quickly to the floor. Icaught up with her later: “I was sure they were going to beat me up. I just went down with my head in my hands.” Instead of administering a summary beating, a policeman picked her up and took her aside. Safe at the outskirts of the remaining action she comments: “Didn’t Boris just tell us London was the safest and friendliest place in the world?…Not any more”.