By Jordan Katz
Guy Davidi, co-director of Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras, has always been curious. He’s always wanted answers, to see all sides of a problem. He thinks his ability to see the gray between black and white began when his father died. He was 10 years old. He began to deal with complexity–questions about life and death, and what it is to lose a loved one–long before most confront those issues.
So when Davidi crossed the barriers into the Palestinian controlled territories of the West Bank as a young filmmaker, he was alone. He even kept the details of his whereabouts from his friends and family, not because he was ashamed, but because it provoked so many unanswerable questions. What did he want there? Didn’t he know the dangers? When would he return?
When Davidi talks about his reasons for becoming an activist-filmmaker in the West Bank, the most concrete thing he says is that he doesn’t want to be “nourished by stereotypes.” He has gone out of his way to learn the truth about Palestinians. He met Emad Burnat, his co-director and the primary videographer of all of the footage for 5 Broken Cameras, in 2005. They had both been activists in Bil'in, the village where Burnat lives and the film takes place. Burnat approached Davidi to work on the film in 2009. Davidi describes his experiences in Bil'in in almost literary terms. The people are warm and strong, and they’re angry, but not misguided. 5 Broken Cameras follows these characters through the lenses of Burnat's various cameras both in their homes and on the streets in protest of the Israeli occupation, with a particular emphasis on his youngest son's perspective. We watch the boy, Gibreel, as he learns to make sense of the fraught world around him, from gathering olives at his family's farm to learning to associate the word jesh, or soldiers, with the Arabic word for run. It is this inclination toward the literary in describing the residents of Bil’in that makes up a large part of Davidi’s contribution to 5 Broken Cameras. The glue of the film, a haunting narration that strings together clips of separate times and spaces, is Davidi’s interpretation of Burnat’s personal perspective. He says this was one of the most difficult parts of the process for Burnat; Burnat expresses his reactions to the beauties and horrors of his circumstances as he feels them, but he doesn’t necessarily see his experiences falling into such a digestible narrative. So when certain ideas are brought up in the film–for example, that to heal is to resist oppression–those are Davidi’s interpretations of Burnat's emotions. "Once I describe something, he agrees that it is what he has experienced," says Davidi.
Davidi’s ability and desire to play the devil’s advocate on issues that so intimately affect his country’s future comes with a price. He constantly risks alienating everyone around him: his own countrymen who feel he’s betrayed them, and the Palestinians he interprets for potentially misrepresenting them. When asked about his relationship with Burnat, and specifically their decision to collaborate, he insists that the decision was not for political gains. They weren’t doing it to project some façade of political balance or even of universality and solidarity. In fact, the project was very much one-sided: It was to be Burnat’s story. And that was because the story was already there; Davidi just had to extract the narrative from the hundreds of hours of footage that Burnat had compulsively shot. Davidi says that even the interviews that have come since the film’s success have been a struggle, because they either focus on the political aspect of the two’s relationship or they highlight the discrepancy between the way Burnat actually speaks about his experiences and the voiceover in the film.
Since the film’s release, Palestine has reached observer-state status in the United Nations. The moment that happened, the international community split into their usual camps, rejoicing over the possibilities for the future of Palestine and the waning influence of the United States, or lamenting the bestowing of legitimacy on a cluster of angry factions, unwilling to negotiate.
Juxtaposed with an account like 5 Broken Cameras, though, the move seems less meaningful. For the people of Bil’in, who send their children into the streets to protest the Israeli army abducting them in the night, this is a conflict between past, current, and future neighbors. The glass in United Nations conference rooms is pristine; the lens of Burnat’s camera is shattered by a bullet discharged from just feet away from him.
Almost three months after the upgrade in U.N. status, Burnat was detained for an hour and a half at Los Angeles International Airport by security officials who “couldn't understand how a Palestinian could be an Oscar nominee,” according to tweets from American documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Burnat texted Moore, who got in touch with Academy officials who helped verify that he had indeed been nominated for an Oscar. The news of the incident was almost laughable to anyone who has seen 5 Broken Cameras. But it wasn't laughable to Burnat or his family, especially Gibreel. In a statement from Burnat after the incident, he says he "could see [Gibreel's] heart sink" at the prospect of being deported back to Turkey that same day. Burnat goes on to say that the experience was not unlike what Palestinians experience every day, that "there are more than 500 Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks, and other barriers to movement across our land," according to The Huffington Post.
The film doesn’t offer a clear-cut policy solution, and it underscores the desire for retaliation among Palestinians who see themselves as victims of an ever-hardening aggressor. More than the messages put forth by the film itself, Davidi and Burnat’s actions as individuals and as participants in the conflict indicate the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. We see Burnat, who defiantly insists that his filming may one day have an impact, but is resigned to being repeatedly arrested for it in the meantime. And then there is Davidi, supposedly adopting or at least considering the opposing perspective, but recognizing that the cognitive dissonance his investigation inspires isn’t anything many on either side will ever want to stomach. Although on paper, this film may look like two people who set aside their differences in the name of solidarity, the truth is that it's a collaboration borne out of many years of counter-intuitive engagement and work. Taken as a model for the West Bank and Gaza, any hope for peace rests not just on ending antagonism, but on Palestinians and Israelis actively engaging beyond their borders and their comfort zones.
Jordan Katz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of TRTTelevizyon]