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Seven Years, '5 Broken Cameras': Documenting the Occupation

By Tom White

Editor's Note: 5 Broken Cameras airs August 26 on PBS' POV, then will stream on POV's website August 27-September 25. What follows is an interview we conducted with filmmakers Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat following the film's nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

5 Broken Cameras, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, gives viewers a riveting, ground-level perspective on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the nonviolent resistance movement against the settlements that began in 2005 in the West Bank village of Bil'in. Emad Burnat, an olive farmer who quickly caught to the power of the camera as a documenter, witness and protector, captured seven years in the life of his village, filming demonstrations, arrests and killings, while preserving the personal memories of his son Gabreel growing up amid the conflict and his wife Soriah holding the household together while imploring Burnat to stop filming. The five cameras he deploys, all broken while filming confrontations with Israeli soldiers, capture Burnat's transformation to journalist and documentary filmmaker.   

Israeli activist and filmmaker Guy Davidi, the co-director, co-editor, writer and co-producer of 5 Broken Cameras, had spent a long period of time in Bel'in prior to meeting Burnat, both making films and getting to know the residents there. He worked with Burnat to find and shape the story, turning it into a personal tale of struggle and empowerment. spoke with the filmmakers by phone, separately—Davidi in New York, and Burnat, the co-director, co-producer and cinematographer of 5 Broken Cameras, in Bil'in.  These interviews have been condensed and edited.


Courtesy of Kino-Lorber How did you and Emad Burnat meet? How did start working together on 5 Broken Cameras?

Guy Davidi: I was an activist going to different villages on the West Bank, starting in 2003. As a filmmaker I was covering a lot of issues and doing some videos for the Internet, and a lot of camera work for other filmmakers who were interested in different issues. In 2005, when the movement reached Bil'in, I went there along with other Israeli activists, first of all to support the people. But since I'm a filmmaker, I was starting to think about how to present on film what was going on there.

What was striking at first was there were a lot of people filming everything, especially the demonstrations, so I didn't feel I had a space to work on that issue. So with a Swiss named Alexander Gutchman, we started to work on finding new angles and new points of view that were related to the occupation. My first short documentary was In Working Progress and from that film we went to the construction of the settlements on the land of Bil'in and filmed construction workers, who were Palestinians. We saw the contradiction: The team that was building the settlement was also going to the demonstrations and protesting against the construction.

For [my next film] Interrupted Streams, Alex and I wanted to do something that would enter more into the lives of the people, and deal with much more internal and transparent influences of the occupation. Water seemed like a good metaphor of how occupation penetrates every aspect of your daily life, so for that film I stayed with Alex for more than two months in Bil'in. For that period of time I had a lot of talks with a lot of people about their childhood, their dreams, their expectations of life and how they can plan their lives, where occupation can always take you by surprise. So a lot of these talks inspired me later on to write the narration for 5 Broken Cameras, and they were a source for working together with Emad.

I stayed there a long period of time and that was the first time that an Israeli wanted to live in the village and not just come to the demonstration. But I was very much accepted and I think later on it also helped to have people from the village trust me because I had shown commitment to what was happening.

Emad was filming at the same time. In the first years he was filming I don't think he had watched a documentary before seeing other filmmakers come in and make films about the nonviolent movement. There was one film, Bil'in My Love, that was released in 2006. The director, an Israeli named Shai Carmeli-Pollak, was working a lot with Emad, and he gave him an idea that he should make a film one day.

We knew each other because everybody knew Emad. He had been filming for years. He filmed as an activist, and he posted his videos on YouTube and gave his footage to a lawyer to use as proof and as a way to protect the people, and then later on he started to give this footage to news agencies and channels and that way he started to work with Reuters as a freelance cameraman. But I think later on he got this idea to make a film and he started focusing on Adeed [a friend of Emad].

The problem was that Shai had covered this story with Bil'in My Love, which was an international success. When Emad called me in 2009 it was through an organization called Greenhouse, a fund film development project. With a friend of ours, Emad applied to Greenhouse to help him shape the film. In 2009 [Emad's friend] Phil died, and the idea was to create a film around Adeed and Phil and use some footage that he had of Phil. It was supposed to commemorate him, but it didn't really work out because the submission was very ideological and the producer left the project. Emad needed someone to work with, so, with Greenhouse, he gave my name. They called me trying to convince me to join the project. And I didn't want to because, first of all, most of the film would be Emad's footage, and without knowing it I imagined that he would have a lot of demonstrations, a lot of direct action and it would be his version of Bil'in My Love—kind of an activist film., which was not interesting for me.


Adeed (left) and Phil, from 5 Broken Cameras. Courtesy of Kino-Lorber


Second, I didn't see why I should be aboard because I'm not a producer. I'm a filmmaker and a writer. I didn't think there was a space for me there.

Third, it's very difficult to create a film together with a Palestinian. It's not just because of how we both will be judged, but I will always be in a difficult position because I will always be on the Israeli side. My role will never be understood. Being a Palestinian is a very comfortable position in some cases. Of course it's his footage and obviously it will be a very difficult personal decision, and we'll be judged by our people around us. He will be judged for choosing to work with me and I'll be judged for choosing to work with him, so it's a very difficult issue.

But I told myself, Maybe...I knew everything that Emad had done in his life. I knew he had had an accident, I knew he had been arrested, I knew that he had lost cameras. I told myself, If you're able to tell a story from his personal perspective, he will be the center of the film, you'll use him as a character and you'll create a voiceover for him, it'll be a nice opportunity—important politically because I'll be empowering his voice, which personally again it'll be a difficult thing to do, but politically it will be meaningful. I'll be there to encourage his voice and not put my voice in it—create something balanced— which is something I wasn't sure politically was the right thing to do, but to be able to see the intimacy of life through his eyes would be something that might be very emotional, very strong.

So when I went to meet him for the first time, to see his footage, my idea was to see how can we link all these events that had happened within his own personal life. I know that Adeed and Phil were his friends, and I knew of the stories of his brothers which were important in the movement, but I didn't know anything else.

So the first idea was to make a film about Adeed and two friends—the story of three friends. Then later on I saw this footage of an old man blocking a jeep from taking someone to prison. I asked Emad, "Who is this guy?" And he told me, "That's my father and he's blocking the jeep from taking my brother to prison." I imagined how he would feel in that situation, at that moment, making the decision to film and not to do anything else. Suddenly he became a son and not just a cameraman. When I tried to see if he was willing to make a film about himself, he was open to that, so I offered him, "Make a film about yourself; put yourself in the center." And it was not an easy decision. He would be judged: Why are you taking all the Palestinian village story to tell your story? But at the same time he was also flattered, so he accepted it.

Then, we looked at more footage. I discovered that Gabreel [Emad's son] was born a week before the start of the demonstrations in Bil'in. I told Emad, "This is important. This is your son; we can use him to create a line."

A lot of footage was filmed once I joined the project, so from 2009 to 2011 Emad was filming with a different approach because once he decided to create the film that way, we still needed a lot of footage that would create links between the personal elements and the social elements, so you had scenes like Emad's wife asking him to stop filming, and when he takes Gabreel to the demonstration and when you see Emad's wife putting Gabreel to sleep—a lot of these scenes were filmed after I joined the project. Emad was trying to get this footage very fast so he would be able to create this line that was not originally planned.


Emad Burnat's son Gabreel. From 5 Broken Cameras. Courtesy of Kino-Lorber


D: As director focusing on this period—2009-2011—how often did  you visit Bil'in? What was your role from this point forward?

GD: When I got into the project, it had hundreds of hours of footage by Emad, hundreds more hours by other cameramen, and there was no story and there was no clarity about where the film was going to go, other than the fact that Phil was supposed to be in it and the nonviolent movement as well. So I created the narrative line—the 5 Broken Cameras line, the concept of it and Gabreel as a character, Soriah as a character, Emad as a character, and then I wrote the narration. We had conversations every week. I went to Emad and we shot and we discussed the text; we went for three weeks and we reviewed footage. And then every week we came to Bil'in and Emad gave me footage. We brainstormed together about what kind of scenes to film. We always made sure that whenever I'm not needed, Emad will be filming; I'm not going to be there, unless it's Emad himself who is filmed, like when he presents the five broken cameras or the hospital scene; in those cases I'm filming him. I was constructing the film for Emad. It was his life, and the way he speaks about it is, This is his life, this is his experience.

It was a lot of collaborative work, not just by myself, but with a lot of people with the Greenhouse team. Later on when we started to work with Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot, the editor, she was doing magic with the footage. I was able to create the structure of the film, but I wasn't able to make the story easy to digest in a way that every international viewer would understand exactly what is going on, then could experience the feelings. But that's something that Veronique brought. There was also a lot of repetition in the story, because occupation is repetitive. This gets you out of the story because you feel this is endless; Veronique gave the film a sense of development.  

D: I wanted to talk a bit more about Greenhouse. How did they become involved in the film?

GD: Greenhouse is a Mediterranean development project. It was initiated by the Israeli Cinema Fund, but it's not sponsored by Israel because the idea is to bring filmmakers from different countries, from Arab countries and from Israel and from Turkey to seminars together with European and American and Western professionals who are doing mentoring for projects that are dealing with different issues. 

I joined the project once Greenhouse was already aboard. They had an important role in creating the trust between [Emad and me]. They were also helping us with promotion and finding investors.

At the same time Greenhouse was sometimes not accepted by some Arab countries and Arab filmmakers because of the boycott and because of a lot of political issues. For us it was clear that the film was much more important than these issues. There's Israeli involvement, even though it's not governmental.

D: Tell me about how you secured funding.

GD: The first funding was American: ITVS International's development fund. Then we got Dutch funding, then the Israeli Cinema Fund was the most important money at the beginning. In 2011 we managed to get French TV on board, and they helped us with much more money, which allowed us to edit in Paris and work with Veronique.


Guy Davidi (left) and Emad Burnat, co-directors/co-producers of 5 Broken Cameras. Courtesy of Kino-Lorber


Interview with Emad Burnat

D: 5 Broken Cameras is both your personal story and the story of the life of Bil'in over seven years. At what point did you and Guy determine that your personal story would be an important part of 5 Broken Cameras?

Emad Burnat: In 2005 when the people of my village started the protests and the demonstration, I decided to take my camera and go out, for different purposes: to protect myself and the people around me, and to be a witness with my camera and use the footage for websites or YouTube or for other journalists. The village became stronger and the nonviolent movement became stronger, and people came to give support. Even Israeli activists came to my village, and people came to study the nonviolent movement. Other people came to make documentaries; they asked me to give them footage because I was the only cameraman in the village, documenting  the daily life.

The idea of making this documentary came to me from one of my friends. He asked me, "Why don't you make your own film? This is your story." So I thought, Yes, this is my story; I was affected by this. My son and my friends had been affected by this. So I started following and focusing more on my friends and on my son Gabreel growing up, and working on the story. That story was there and the idea was there, so I proposed to Guy Davidi after five years of working on this film to join the project, but not to make it an Israeli-Palestinian collaboration. He was an Israeli activist also, so I proposed him to join us to support me in making this Palestinian documentary.

So he gave me ideas on the production. And then so many ideas came from friends, from outside for the creative development and the construction of the film in a way for Western people to better understand the story, the situation and the subject. So it's my story, my point of view and my personal perspective about the daily lives and my son growing up.

D: Throughout the film, you as the narrator say some very interesting things about filmmaking. At the beginning of the film, you say you film to hold onto your memories, and by the end of the film you take us to a deeper place: Filmmaking is a means of healing, of confronting life, of survival. It's been over a year since you premiered the film. What is filmmaking to you now that adds to what you articulate in the film?

EB: I think first of all, it's about the creative process of this film: When you put all of this together--the art and the idea and the feeling, and the relation to the place and the daily lives—you make a strong piece of art. This happened with me and my village during the last seven years when I was making this film.

The film got a good reaction and made a very strong impact around the world, so I think that when people watch this film, they understand more and are more touched by the story because it's through my story, through my life, and they feel they are inside the lives. It's not just a film; it's something about life. There are many films about this subject, but most of them were made by people who came from outside. They really didn't live the reality; they didn't suffer; they didn't feel the same feeling that people who live there feel. When I narrate, it comes from inside, from my feelings. It's not just a talk or a conversation. So you feel that; this is what it's like to be there, in that situation.

D: You are both a journalist and a documentary filmmaker. A lot of documentary makers come from both print and broadcast  journalism. What to you are some of the similarities between journalism and documentary filmmaking, and what are the differences?

EB: For me, to make this documentary—first of all, it's my life, it's my story, it's my issue. In journalism they have part of the story; I was working as a journalist getting footage for TV channels and how that affects the journalism and affects people who have cameras. But for me, I live close to the subject, what happens in my village and what happens to my people. So it was related to me in the village—my friends, my village and the situation in the land-to mix that with art and filmmaking and the editing, this was important for me. It was not just to make a film. I know many people who are filmmakers; they just go and shoot some shots and they get footage and they make films. That's not my position. My position is to make my film related to me and related to my situation. For me, it's not about the business; it's not about making my films famous. It's more important for me what happens in my village and what's my message, so my goal is to reach people around the world. This is what's important for me about making films.

D: Talking about reaching people, I know you've shown this film in Israel at the Jerusalem Film Festival. What has been the audience reaction among Israelis?

EB: In Israel, the film had a very good reaction from the Israel society, but at the same time there have been many bad reactions from many people in Israel about the film and about the story. But I think it's making some change with the Israeli people and the Jewish people in the United States and other places.

The film was shown in Palestine also. The people know more about this; they related to the place and they related to the situation. This is how the life is in many parts. They were more touched by the story, to see the village to remind them what happened before for the last seven years. So it's very touching to watch this.

D: And what about other audiences in the Middle East, among the Arab communities? Have you shown the film in other places in the Middle East?

EB: No, the film was not shown in other Arab countries except Morocco and Iran. But I did hear many good reactions from Arab countries from people who have seen the film.

D: How did they react to your working with an Israeli filmmaker?

EB: The reason I decided to work with Guy—his sense of origin is as an Israeli activist and not to represent [the conflict of] Arabs against  Israel. When I approached him to join the project, we agreed that we were not making it political, it was not Israeli-Palestinian collaboration. I told them you'd come and support and help, and this is my film; it's a Palestinian film. It's my story, my family's story, my village's story.

D: Looking to your future, do you have other projects in the works as far as  films are concerned? Are you still working as a journalist?

EB: No, I'm not working as a journalist. Since the film was finished, I've been very busy promoting and screening the film around the world. I've spent so many years creating this. My goal is to reach the people with this message, and this is what I'm doing with it. It's not just to make a film and forget about it to go to make another film. I have a message, so I have to screen this message. I want this message to reach everybody around the world. So we create documentaries, and we have documentaries to make change. It's not just to make documentaries.


Courtesy of Kino-Lorber



Editor's Note: Following Emad Burnat's detainment by immigration authorities at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday, he posted a piece about that experience in the Huffington Post

5 Broken Cameras will be screening Saturday, February 23, at 11:00 a.m. as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills and at 3:45 p.m. as part of DocuDay NY.