The personal and the political are one and the same in the striking documentary 5 Broken Cameras, in which Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat uses a series of cameras that keep getting destroyed to film his family and the protests being carried out by his village against the West Bank Barrier, as well as the encroaching settlement being built on the other side. The film captures how quickly this happens: He and other residents from the town of Bil’in regularly approach the wall for peaceful protests, and are inevitably driven away with stun grenades, beatings, and sometimes lethal force. When he turns his camera on his four sons, Burnat describes them in terms of the political situation when each was born—one shortly after the Oslo Peace Accords, another at the start of the Second Intifada. His youngest son, the adorable Gibreel, grows up over the four years during which the film was shot, becoming troublingly aware of the distress into which he was born.
Burnat’s co-director, Guy Davidi, is Israeli, which gives the film a sense of balance and exhaustion; the conflicts go on and on without any possibility of resolution, and the power is certainly on the side of the settlers on the other side of the barrier, who receive the protection of the Israel Defense Forces. “When I film, I feel like the camera protects me, but that’s an illusion,” Burnat notes in his voiceover narration. It’s true and not—more than once, his camera literally takes a bullet on his behalf, but he also sustains serious repeated injuries in his attempts to document the protests. The protest footage is stunning and wearying, and Burnat’s wife sometimes asks him when he’s going to stop. He can’t, not just because it’s important and he’s angry, but because the more people die in the course of their battle, the more it seems like giving up to turn away.
That intertwining of Burnat’s home life and his political one make 5 Broken Cameras an unusual, moving work about a much-explored topic. It offers a look at how a tireless protest can sometimes only come at the expense of one’s own daily existence. As a final image of children playing in the sea suggests, the true loss on both sides of this endless struggle is the time that would be spent living, otherwise.