Film Review: 5 Broken Cameras

Documentary finds an affecting personal angle on West Bank territorial dispute.

An effective pairing of political history with personal life, 5 Broken Cameras offers a first-hand look at five years of West Bank protests. Emad Burnat had "never thought of making films" with his consumer video camera; he just wanted to capture memories of his growing family. But when his son Gibreel is born on the same day that Israelis start ripping up olive trees near his home in the Palestinian village Bil'in, Burnat feels compelled to film both events.

Soon, Burnat is compulsively shooting the interaction of townspeople and Israeli soldiers, finding himself in the middle of protests against settlements and the barrier separating Bil'in's residents from the land they have cultivated. Burnat, who narrates the film in a calm monotone, finds more lively characters around him—like Phil, who clowns around with local kids, and Adeeb, whose happy obstinacy makes him a natural-born protester. We watch as Bil'in residents attempt to use Israeli law to hold back the settlements, and despite constant opposition from heavily armed soldiers, they eventually build their own outpost on disputed land.

Burnat starts the film by noting that each of his sons has had a different childhood, defined by different stages of territorial disputes in the region. Here he follows Gibreel's progression from infant to a toddler whose first words included "Army" and "cartridge." Poignantly, he speaks of the growing boy's need to become a tough man; late in the film, after Gibreel has seen his father and uncles imprisoned and had a beloved friend killed by Israelis, viewers' hearts will break when the boy asks, "Daddy, why don't you kill the soldiers with a knife?"

The focus on Gibreel anchors the film, but Burnat and his filmmaking partner Guy Davidi (an Israeli) use another conceit to give the film chronological structure. As the title suggests, it was made largely with five cameras that were much abused as Burnat struggled to film protests and everyday friction. Numerous times, his cameras were broken by bullets; on one occasion, the filmmaker believes a bullet lodged in his camera would otherwise have killed him. In a familiar image, he is often commanded to stop filming—once even in his own home, as soldiers tell him his house is now a "Closed Military Zone" and his family must leave.

Burnat persists in his project, ignoring not only military orders and civilian threats—"If he films, I'll break his bones!" shouts an Israeli settler (there's one more broken camera)—but the entreaties of his wife, who has seen her husband's quest lead to imprisonment and near-death. The result is uniquely powerful, putting faces and human consequences to a political dispute that seemingly will never end.
The Hollywood Reporter