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Film Review

5 Broken Cameras

Israel has accomplished so much since its birth in 1948. Against all odds, it fought off four Arab armies that attempted to invade, established the only democracy in the Middle East, began to transform a largely barren land into an agricultural wonder, and became a refuge for Holocaust survivors and the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab countries. It fought five wars since its founding, the last a botched invasion of Lebanon in 2006 in an attempt to stop rocket and cross border attacks. For Israel's first 30 years of existence, its Arab neighbors pledged to destroy it, and in 1973, nearly succeeded, with a simultaneous invasion by Egyptian and Syrian armies. Yet Israel has become a leader in education, medicine, and technology, and has the highest standard of living of any country in the Middle East. All this in a country smaller than New Jersey, without a drop of oil.

After the surprise attacks of the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Israel government realized the need for defense in depth, particularly in the narrow ten mile wide section between the West Bank and the Mediterranean. The West Bank was populated by Palestinians, most of whom had lived there for many generations, with agriculture the principal occupation. The government began encouraging settlers to move to the West Bank by subsidizing huge housing developments and constructing secure roads. Palestinian land was seized, often illegally. A trickle became a flood, so that by the end of 2011, more than 350,000 Israelis had moved into settlements in the West Bank. At the same time, the second Intifada had crushed the peace movement in Israel, and the government had moved to the right, which further strengthened the power of the Orthodox in Israel. Due to the increasing number of suicide bombings inside Israel, the government decided to construct a barrier, a concrete wall, to make access difficult except through checkpoints. The wall was largely successful in stopping the bombings, but it too was built on Palestinian land. The wall and settlement construction resulted in the confiscation of much Palestinian agricultural land which has embittered those Palestinians who had expected that they would become autonomous and ultimately have their own state. The situation today is untenable, and both sides seem paralyzed. A third Intifada is inevitable.

In 2005, Emad Burnat, a Palestinian living in the West Bank village of Bilin, bought a small video camera to record the events of his first child's birth and childhood. He soon became an accomplished cameraman. At the same time, a new Israeli settlement was being built next to Bilin, and some of the village's olive orchards were seized. The construction of the wall also prevented access to their groves. These trees provided food and a rare source of income, plus had considerable cultural value: "More than feeding us, the land connects us". The village had decided on nonviolent protests (assuming rock throwing is relatively nonviolent), and Emad began to record the encounters with the Israelis. Every week the villagers would march up to the army units, chanting slogans and waving flags. The army would order them to disperse, then fire tear gas, and sometimes rifle fire. It wasn't clear when a soldier was firing rubber bullets or regular rounds, but villagers were wounded and several killed. In one of the early demonstrations a gas grenade hits Emad's camera, and an Israeli filmmaker, Guy Davidi, gives him a camera. Davidi later became the co-director of this film, "5 Broken Cameras". The film is divided into five sections, each section begun and ending with a broken camera. All broken violently, with one probably saving his life from a sniper's bullet. "5 Broken Cameras" opens and closes with Emad displaying the 5 cameras on a table. He narrates his own film, beginning with "I was born and live in Bilin....". His voice is calm and monotone, with a pervading sense of sorrow, as most of the events are sad. The exception is his footage of his family life, which is intimate and often moving. His son watches the demonstrations by his father's side, and we watch the son grow up. Emad's film is similar to "Budrus" (2010), which documented another village's attempt at nonviolent protest during the same period, yet Emad's film is more poignant because of its intimacy. Some of the scenes are intensely moving, such as the man hugging an olive tree or the trees burning after having been set on fire by the settlers. The scars on the land, from various excavations, barriers, and roads, are startling and sad. The scars on each side are sadder still.

For those like myself, who are strong supporters of Israel, "5 Broken Cameras" is very disturbing. This is a strong point of view documentary, with little balance or context. For instance there is no exploration of what caused the Israelis to construct the wall, yet the scenes we see often make me ashamed of current Israeii policies. Israel has a highly ethical culture and has had to live under an existential threat that is unimaginable for Americans, yet the Palestinians, no matter how poorly led (think of the years of rejection of Israeli peace initiatives), deserve an autonomy and a state of their own. The Israelis counter that they gave back Gaza, and look what happened. But the continued occupation of the West Bank is cruel, embitters everyone, erodes Israeli democratic principles, and makes a real peace impossible. Further, the settlers now represent a substantial political force, which makes their moving out of the settlements less and less likely. I am pessimistic that we will see a solution in our lifetimes. That said, "5 Broken Cameras" is a fine, thoughtful, and moving film. Its 90 minutes go by quickly, and Emad's footage will stay with you. Playing at the Embarcadero, but probably not beyond this week.

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