The organizing principle of the Palestinian documentary “5 Broken Cameras” is right there in the title, and it’s so simple it’s inspired. The cameras belong to Emad Burnat, the film’s co-director, narrator, and principal photographer. He’s an olive farmer in the West Bank village of Bil’in who got his first video camera in 2005, when his youngest son was born. After a barrier was built in the village to protect an Israeli settlement, Burnat began using the camera to record demonstrations and other political activity. “When something happens in the village,” he says in a voiceover, “my intention is to film it.”
The documentary consists of his footage (with some additional shots of Burnat filming or engaged in other activities). There are no cutaways to talking heads or maps or discussions of historical background. It would be fascinating, and perhaps disturbing, to hear what some of the Israeli soldiers suppressing the demonstrations had to say. But that would make this a very different film. What we do see has an immediacy and intimacy that’s involving. It also can feel a bit wayward and cumulatively wearying. Experienced firsthand, tear-gas grenades never become passe. They do onscreen, or at least they do when seen as many times as they are here.
What gives “5 Broken Cameras” its shape is that word “broken.” The documentary begins with the quintet of no-longer-functioning cameras on a table. The career of each provides the film with chapters. A chapter ends with the cameras being broken — two are damaged by Israeli soldiers’ bullets, another is wrecked in a car crash, and so on — followed by an intertitle giving its dates of use. Then the next chapter begins.
“When I film,” Burnat says, “I feel like the camera protects me, but it’s an illusion.” Yet it does seem to grant him surprising entree. Some of the most striking shots are taken from behind or even among Israeli soldiers as they move in on demonstrators. One assumes they were taken by Burnat. But since he’s jailed for a month by the Israelis, then put under house arrest for a time, clearly he’s not seen as a friend of the occupation. Were these shots taken by other cameramen? There’s no unobtrusive way of letting us know, but it does affect a viewer’s response to what’s up on screen.
The film’s pro-Palestianian stance is a given, yet there’s little preaching. The images mostly speak for themselves. Burnat is friendly with the protest leaders. We get a good sense of them as individuals, especially the most animated and colorful among them, Adeeb (there’s a shot of him primping in a mirror before he heads off to demonstrate); and when another leader is killed by a stray Israeli bullet, viewers can’t help but share the shock of the villagers. But Burnat keeps political rhetoric to a minimum. The documentary is most powerful at its most basic and human. When one of Burnat’s brothers has been arrested and put into a military truck, their father climbs on the hood, trying to prevent the soldiers from taking him away. Or there’s the sight of uprooted and burned olive trees, which have been destroyed in reprisal for the protests. It’s an image with a lineage that stretches back to the Sumerians, and beyond.
The film ends in 2010, with a small victory for the villagers. It feels long overdue, much deserved — and transitory. “Forgotten wounds can’t be healed,” Burnat says, “so I film to heal.” What stays with the viewer, though, isn’t the memory of any healing but of the wounds.