Cameras captures troubling Palestinian point of view

Inspired by the birth of his fourth son in 2005, Palestinian villager Emad Burnat picked up a camcorder and started filming.

Mostly, though, he explains at the outset of the disturbing documentary “5 Broken Cameras,” he was compelled by his neighbors’ protests of the security barrier that Israel was constructing on their land. Burnat kept a camera rolling for the next five years, even as one after the other was smashed or shot up by Israeli soldiers. Then he gave his footage to Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi to edit and assemble.

The military’s heightened response to resistance from the village of Bilin, near Ramallah in the West Bank, provides the film’s grist and, we are encouraged to believe, is related to the growing cluster of Israeli settlements and high-rise apartment buildings a short distance away.

Filmmaker Emad Burnat’s mother pleads with a soldier to release her arrested son Khaled. photo/kino lorber films

If you followed these events in newspapers or through previous documentaries screened at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival (“The Wall,” “Bilin My Love”), Burnat and Davidi’s documentary has the feel of old news. Even so, the images are undeniably troubling, and it’s difficult to dismiss the film’s relevance, as well as the many uncomfortable questions it provokes.

After all, settlements continue to be built, and the Israeli governmental and military policies and attitudes toward Palestinians recorded by Burnat have not changed measurably.

“5 Broken Cameras,” which received the directing award in the World Cinema Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, opens Friday, June 22.

Frankly, it’s difficult to view — or review — “5 Broken Cameras” outside of the prism of one’s political perspective. Some people, inevitably, will see the film as propaganda while others will see it as a record of human-rights abuses. And each group can make a pretty good case.

Take Burnat’s narration, which is restrained, dispassionate and nonconfrontational. Even when he’s contemplating the implications of letting his young son see all the dangerous, painful and confusing aspects of life in the Palestinian territories, Burnat’s voice contains almost no emotion.

The disparity between his matter-of-fact narration and the visuals, frequently of hair-trigger confrontations between soldiers and villagers, clearly is a conscious strategy. Its main purpose, arguably, is to subtly underscore the contrast between the Palestinians’ reasonableness and the army’s lawlessness and bullying (which include repeated tear gas assaults and the nighttime arrests of children).

There is no disconnect, though, between the premature deaths of Burnat’s cameras and the army’s repeated admonitions to him to stop filming. (Burnat upgrades from camcorder to professional model over the course of the film, which is one way we deduce that his family enjoys a comfortable standard of living. Incidentally, his camerawork is consistently excellent throughout.)

“5 Broken Cameras” was supported in part by an Israeli government grant, and one presumes that Davidi shepherded the documentary through the grant process (and onto the film festival circuit), along with supervising postproduction.

So what are we to make of Israel’s willingness to fund this movie, and ultimately assist in the dissemination of unfavorable images, at the same time that the military’s policy is to actively discourage the capture of such images in the first place?

Is this a heartening sign of a healthy democracy, or an illusion?

Alas, this isn’t even the most uncomfortable question that “5 Broken Cameras” raises.

“5 Broken Cameras” opens Friday, June 22 at a Landmark theater in San Francisco, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Camera Cinemas in San Jose. In Hebrew, Arabic and English with English subtitles. (Not rated, 90 minutes)