Emad Burnat, a Palestinian who works as a freelance news cameraman and photographer for outlets such as Reuters and Al Jazeera, began in February 2005 to record the weekly protests organized in his native village of Bil’in on the West Bank. Israel was constructing the separation fence that it claimed was needed to protect its citizens from terrorist incursions—a fence that put approximately 7 percent of West Bank land onto the Israeli side—and at Bil’in about half the land had been cut off. At the same time, immediately overlooking the agricultural fields that Bil’in residents could no longer reach, construction crews were putting up hundreds of units of high-rise apartments for ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers. As a court investigation soon showed, this construction was illegal by Israel’s own standards—and yet the Civil Administration somehow was unable to verify that anything was wrong.
The residents of Bil’in, and hundreds of Israeli activists who joined forces with them, had no such problem. This was a case of “daylight robbery,” in the words of Haaretz; and by way of yelling, “Stop, thief!” the people of Bil’in began demonstrating every Friday. Burnat was always there. He had become the unofficial videographer of the village.
These are the verifiable facts underlying the documentary 5 Broken Cameras, directed by Burnat and the Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, which gives an eyewitness account of the Bil’in protests from 2005 through 2010, when a section of the barrier was at last removed. Burnat supplies voiceover narration for his footage, speaking in a low-key tone that matches the dryness of the film’s title. The cameras were broken, one after another, because the Israeli Army and Border Police continually fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at the protesters (who sometimes threw rocks but were, in the judgment of an Israeli court, more the victims than the perpetrators of the violence). Burnat’s cameras kept getting hit. He did, too.
I can’t say that Burnat and Davidi have shaped the film perfectly. Some incidents are murky, some appear to be just a little staged, and the claim that Burnat acquired his first camera to record the birth of his son Gibreel does not square with his journalistic career. (It does suggest, though, that one or the other of the filmmakers has seen Kieslowski’sCamera Buff.) But the overall story of 5 Broken Cameras is demonstrably accurate; and told in this way, it is terrifying, enraging, heartbreaking and (against all odds) inspiring.