In 2005, Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer in the West Bank village of Bil’in, bought a video camera to document the birth and childhood of his fourth son, Gibreel. At the same time, Israeli settlers started building an illegal settlement on farmlands near his village. As his fellow Palestinian organized non-violent protests, Burnat turned his camera around to document the protests, the violent responses from Israeli soldiers, and the culture into which Gibreel would grow in the next five years.
Actually, that should “cameras.” Specifically, 5 Broken Cameras, all of them destroyed by soldiers and/or settlers over five years as Burnat documented the encroaching Israeli settlements on what used to be the olive orchards of Bil’in. We see the busted remains, cracked or broken in half with electronics spilling out, in the opening minutes of the film, as Burnat introduces us to his project and, more importantly, to his life. Those cameras became a defining part of his existence over the five years. “I film to hold on to my memories,” he explains. They also stand as evidence of the dangers inherent in his dogged documentation and hints at injuries to come as his footage unfolds.
The evolution of documentary filmmaking in the past couple of decades has opened up the once staid conventions and allowed personal filmmaking. Non-fiction has become another method of telling relevant and interesting stories and sharing personal experiences with an audience in a film narrative. 5 Broken Cameras is a mix of citizen journalism and social memoir. Emad Burnat is not just the storyteller. He’s a part of the story, and the very act of documenting the protest is his contribution to it. It puts him in harm’s way time and again (in one instance, his camera takes a bullet that would likely have otherwise killed him) and it informs his perspective.
5 Broken Cameras is constructed almost entirely of first-hand footage shot by Burnat but the finished film is a collaboration between cameraman Burnat and Israeli documentarian Guy Davidi, an activist committed to exploring social justice.