Israeli Director Guy Davidi Talks Collaborating With Palestinian Emad Burnat On '5 Broken Cameras'

on June 01, 2012 by Hillary Eschenburg


To say that 5 Broken Cameras represents an unconventional pairing is putting it mildly. The documentary is a creative union between director Guy Davidi, an Israeli, and Emad Burnat, a Palestinian. When villagers in Burnat's home of Bil'in, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, began protesting the construction of a separation barrier that's cutting off their farmland, Burnat decided to pick up a camera. From 2005-2010, five of Burnat's cameras were either shot or smashed. Davidi joined forces with Burnat to turn hundreds of hours of footage into a 90-minunte film.

Three characters stand out in 5 Broken Carmeras: Adeeb, who can be found at the front of every protest and enjoys causing a scene; Phil, who is a favorite among the children of the village because of his hope and optimism; and Gibreel, Burnat's youngest son who was born at the start of the demonstrations and slowly grows up to the violent reality around him. Their stories are unforgettableand they turn 5 Broken Cameras into a wrenching example of what people who are expected to be enemies can accomplish when they come together. 

What inspired you to get involved as an activist in the conflict in Bil'in?

I was already involved from June of 2003 when, I think it was 2003, there were more and more demonstrations from Palestinian villagers that discovered that the separation fence was going to pass over their land. They started organizing small movements in their villages and they were inviting Israeli activists to join them, or Israeli activists tried to show support. Before 2003 there were older movements of Israeli activists, but there was something very strong that was happening around 2003. There was a new movement of young Israelis that were ready to go to demonstrate in the middle of the West Bank in more extreme situation where the soldiers were going inside the villages and were shooting gas. There was a strong energy in the air and I was joining this movement quite early in the beginning. I'm one of the older members of this movement. It's not really an official movement so you cannot be a member, but I was involved quite early. So when this movement got to Bil'in I was doing some video reports about the subject and the territories along with Indymedia Israel.

When I came to Bil'in in 2005 the villagers there were just starting to demonstrate, and Emad was part of them, and he took his video camera and started to film. I was a video activist and he was a cameraman so we got to know each other quite fast. Because he was the only cameraman who was a part of the village he got this important footage that no one else could get because he was filming during the nights and during the days after the demonstrations were over. I've been following his work from the start when he was just filming in an amateur way, and then he got more and more professional.

In the summer of 2005 I decided to stay in the village to make my first documentary feature, which was made about another subject on the water issue in the West Bank. For the film I stayed for three months in a row in Bil'in so I could experience the way of life there and the way people confronted with occupation, with its emotions, and with its sensations, and with the things that were happening.

I remember during the night when the soldiers were starting to enter the village to arrest young kids and I was there, I'd been called by the villagers to come out and film everything that happened because I became a part of the village as well, and I was an Israeli also. The fact that there was in Israeli going in the middle of the night with a camera affected the reaction of the soldiers because they could never know when there were Israelis in the village and when there weren't. It affected the way they would react because they couldn't be as free as they used to be in other villages because they knew they were more documented and they risked hurting Israelis.

One example is one night after weeks of arrests of kids, it was Ramadan and the villagers went out on the street and they were really angry about so many arrests. They were shouting "Allahu akbar" (God is great) so the soldiers, whenever they hear "Allahu akbar" they think they're being confronted with rage of terrorists so they pulled their guns and they were aiming at all the villagers. It was a really tense and dangerous situation. I was there filming and I was shouting to everyone "there are Israelis," "there are Israelis" from every side, and nothing happens, luckily. So in the morning they were quoted on the military radio that there were 40 Israelis in the night demonstrations in Bil'in, and it was only me that was there.

Wow. So you began to slowly build a relationship with Emad?

I remember Emad at that time was filming in the night side by side with me. We got to know each other more and more, and he contributed some footage to my film. And to Bil'in My Love, and to other films. He was starting to get more professional and sending his footage to news agencies. He was working for Reuters for a time as a freelancer. I think throughout the years he wanted to use his material to make a film as well because he saw so many people coming from outside doing films and he wanted to do his film as a Palestinian. SPOILER WARNING! He had been going on with this idea for quite a time, and after Phil's death he wanted to make a film dedicated to him, and he felt that was a good subject. But he knew it would be tough for him to do it by himself, so he approached me to do this film in 2009. I wasn't sure that a film that is dedicated to someone that died would be good material. I felt that he was a very nice guy with some impressive footage, and I knew he should be a part of a film, but not a film dedicated to someone. END OF SPOILER So I said to Emad, I'm not sure, but he convinced me to look at the material. And I remember I was watching this shot of an old man who was blocking a jeep from taking someone to prison. It was an impressive shot but there was so much violent footage, and after a while if you don't have a context, it becomes just violence. So, I was asking Emad who was this guy, and he tells me "oh, that's my father and he is blocking the jeep from taking my brother to prison." So, at that moment I was astonished that Emad was filming his father and what was happening inside of him at that moment. Because Emad was never speaking about the whole personal side of the event wasn't considered by him. I was actually thinking that this could be a film. The fact that he as a cameraman experienced this personal crisis throughout the years, and his investment in filming and losing his cameras, every time we'd find a new camera for him, or looking for financing for a camera, and we were following that, and his arrest, and all of these events, and I thought that this should be the center of the film. So, I offered that to him and I told him that if you want to do a film with me, I'm suggesting you do a film about yourself, with you in the center of the film, and you're voice, and anything that happens in Bil'in should be connected to you as a person. It took him awhile to accept it, and when he accepted it we started creating the film together using the footage that he had, using the footage from other cameramen as well, to create a narrative, and also using older footage when he was filming his family without thinking it would be a part of anything. So, the footage that he shot of Gibreel and his wife, was footage he never considered to be part of this film. And then for the next two years I was kind of guiding him, and looking for new scenes that would connect the personal elements and the social elements. For example, the scene where his wife is asking him to stop filming was borne after we knew already that we knew wanted to do this kind of film that was personal and social at the same time. And doing the editing and writing and making the film. So, from 2009 we started working on the film.

That's amazing the way you got involved in this and your experiences in the village. The footage that Emad captures on his camera is pretty incredible. What was the most difficult part of the editing process?

Well, it was very complicated first because of the amount of footage. Emad had more than 700 hours of footage and 300 hours more of other cameramen's footage and my footage also. And I think the fact that we had different cameramen help us because we could shape several points of view into Emad's point of view in the end because Emad is the protagonist but every cameraman had different a different research, and when he filmed Emad was focusing on Adeeb and all the demonstrations, but another guy was filming all the meetings and another guy was filming all the settlements. We could have created this whole universe around the demonstrations because there were several people involved in it, but the main difficulty was to decide what event to focus on because every event that happened could be a story in a film. The scene where an Israeli was shotthis was a good friend of minehe's a lawyer and has been helping all the villagers with their arrests, he's a film by himself. And he's a twenty second scene in the film. So, it was about deciding what was going to be the focus, and what was going to be told briefly and what's not going to be told. Out of mounds of footage, at some point he gets lost in it, so after one year and half I was doing the pre-editing, and I couldn't do it anymore. So we had Veronique [Lagoarde], she's a French editor, and she helped me to finish the editing. That was also finding your way inside this mound of dramatic footage. You have to create a balance between the violence and the nice moments, the delicate moments. That was one challenge.

Another challenge was for Emad because I pushed him to dare to be more and more intimate and personal, and that wasn't his plan. It was a difficult journey for him to allow himself to be more and more exposed. The scene where he was arrested and he was under house arrest and he filmed himself, and this footage, he hid it from me for one year, I think. And I was asking him, I knew he was arrested and this was part of the film but I had nothing about it, and I was trying to think of how to build it, what kind of footage or reconstruction, and then, after speaking about it for a while he told me, you know, I have footage of that. Then he showed me this footage where he's filming himself and he's so fragile and almost desperate, and he didn't want to show it. It took him a long while to expose this, and to allow me to use it and to use it in that length. To show him in that fragile moment was not easy for him. There were other intimate moments where he was filming his wife and his kids in the most intimate ways, so that was a whole journey for him. We needed to have time in the editing so could he could accept to reveal more and more.

I'm sure that was difficult for him but it adds a nice human touch to the film.

Yeah, and he understood that is was important to the film, and he agreed more and more to expose himself.

Entering into this project you and Emad anticipated criticism for your partnershipbeing Israeli and Palestinian. Has it been what you expected, and what has surprised you?

The film has not yet been released in Israel. It is going to be released in the Jerusalem film festival in the July. I've been doing my revolt against my surroundings since I was younger, so I've been prepared for that. So, I don't feel I've paid a big price. Of course, I'm condemned by many parts of Israeli society, but that's something I've already challenged in my life. I've been confronting my family for years as well, with their opinions, and I've been doing that since I was younger. So, it's already part of life. Actually, that this film has had such a tremendous success is a kind of comfort for them. I'm sure that when the film is released in Israel there will be big objections to it, and that comes with the subject. Once you do a film with that subject it doesn't matter how you are going to handle it, and it doesn't matter what kind of sensibilities you have. People, especially Israelis, with all their sensitivities, once they hear it's a Palestinian issue you're really marked and categorized. You're already considered by some populations as anti-Semitic. It doesn't matter. You could even do a sort of right-wing values kind of film, and just the fact that it's about a Palestinian movement, it's already been categorized as pro-Palestinian. It doesn't matter what you're saying in the film or what is the real value of the film. You're going to be categorized. So, that comes with the subject. That's also something you have to accept and you have to find your way to reach the audience. And then if you start with that assumption you can only climb up. You cannot fall because you know where you are.

I took some risks because of working with Emad. I think the first question when Emad offered me to do the film was, "Are you sure you want to work with me? Because we're going to both be facing criticism." And I was prepared for that. I knew that I might be criticized by other parts of society, not necessarily just the right-wing or mainstream, but also from the left-wing because during this film I will be more at risk of controlling the Palestinian voice. Just because our background and our privileges are different, and I have more privileges than Emad, I am always at risk of being accused of using his voice or using him, so I am in a very fragile situation personally. I had to consider that and I had to take that risk because I felt the film was important.

I had to take other risks. For example, getting Israeli financing, which is preventing the film from being accessible to some people from the Arab world and from Palestine. We had some refusals for screenings in Palestine, not just in Israel. Even though the film is supportive of the Palestinian idea of having two states, there are some people in Palestine that would look at the collaboration of a Palestinian and an Israeli as a sign of normalization, which is a bad word in Palestine. The fact that we worked together is not necessarily seen as a good thing. And then, mostly, is the fact that we have an Israeli financier. It means that the film is exposed to being boycotted by the BDS [Boycott Divestment Sanction] campaignan international boycott campaign. So, we had to make this decision. And I take responsibility for it and Emad does also. The idea was that the film had to be done, we have to find money for it, and also we wanted to have accessibility to Israeli audiences. These institutions, they help us not only with financing, but also with having accessibility to this audience, which is very important for us. So these are decisions that are very surprising for them and for Emad also because he shows his film all over the world but it is not easy to promote it in Palestine. These decisions and the fact that I wrote the text is also a big risk for me because I would be accused of writing the text for him and controlling his voice. I was interpreting his views but I was always in conversation with him. So, for me I think I made a very sincere and honest work, but still, the fact that I was the writer, that's something that some people don't like. Many Arab people ask Emad "Why did you work with Guy? Why did you choose to work with an Israeli? Don't you think it's a bad thing to do?" But he would say, "You know, that's not the problem. He was the right man. The first he told me when I asked him to do this film, he told me, I know you, I trust you, we know each other. And that's the most important thing. The fact that you're an Israeli for me is politically irrelevant." I don't think it's irrelevant, but for him it was irrelevant.

I think the fact that we could do it was also because there was this strong partnership between the Israeli activists that I was a part of in this movement. We paid prices of people who were shot or wounded and they were spending years and years in this movement so there was a trust that was built in this movement that our relationship could benefit from. There was a movement behind us, we were not just individuals.

Since the end of the filming that we see in the documentary have there been any significant changes in Bil'in?

The movement still is ongoing in Bil'in. People still go to demonstrate in front of the new separation fence. But it's not as big as it used to be. I think most of the people that are still going are the hardcore activists from the village, and I think they're more committed politically, and also they're more connected politically, than the simple villagers. The simple villagers don't go as much. There's this kind of fatigue. And there's this sense that there cannot be more achievements on the local term of the village. So the people that are going to the demonstrations right now, they demonstrate but they don't have a very specific target. It's a very small movement that is still ongoing but it's not the same as it was. There are not so many people going. But I think it's natural that this would not continue the same way that it used to. It's been more than seven years, and so many people paid big prices. So many people went to jail and were arrested and grew up, like we see Gibreel, there's this whole generation who grew up inside of this violence.

People want some rest, and I don't think they're going to get rest. I know that in other villages they continue to be arrested to pay the price for their resistance, even years after there were no demonstrations in the village. I think there was a lot of knowledge that was learned in Bil'in. More Israeli activists are now going to other villages and new generations and international people are there. There are more links and it is also more structural, so, it's developing slowly. It's not growing in a mass explosion like the Arab Spring, but I think it's building a structure, and there is a knowledge that is learned, I hope.

That sounds optimistic.

Yeah, I think the fact that this movement is not falling into despair is a good sign. I think this is a point of optimism. The reality is that you have to be practical. The occupation is not going to be removed overnight. People who have been planning to remove the occupation tomorrow or next week, they have illusions, so we have to accept that our children might live with occupation. A Palestinian lives with occupation but also an Israeli lives with occupation. Of course there are parts of society who benefit from it, but most parts of society don't benefit from it and there is a price for that as well. So, I suffer from the occupation as well. But I have to accept at the same time there is a chance that it won't be removed-there is a chance that it will, but there is a chance that it's going to stay there. I have to accept it and it doesn't mean that I don't do anything about it, but I have to learn to be practical and to do planning for long term not to burst out with rage and with emotions and with a lot of energy that will fall into despair. And I think people in the non-violent movement, they are aware of it, and they are doing the fight with a lot of resistance and with a lot of endurance knowing that things are not going to removed overnight. And I think that's what gives it a lot of strength.

Tags: 5 Broken Cameras, Guy Davidi, Emad Burnat

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