In 2005, Emad Burnat’s fourth son, Gibreel was born in the village of Bil’in on the West Bank. In the same year, Isreal began building a separation fence between Israeli and Palestinian areas. The villagers of Bil’in realised that the fence would cut through their agricultural land, confiscating around half of it “ land they relied on for their livelihoods and to feed their families.
Emad bought his first camera to record the precious moments in his son’s early life, but he ended up mostly using it to record the protests against the encroachments of settlements onto the village’s land. That’s what he used the second camera too, and the third, the fourth and the fifth. Each camera was destroyed by an act of violence “ be it a smoke grenade, a soldier’s bullet or a settler’s fists. Each time, Emad, unperturbed, just got himself another camera and continued filming, continued witnessing.
This film is built up of the footage he shot with those five cameras, with a few scenes shot with others in order to build narrative. This additional material was mostly shot towards the end of the project after co-director Guy Davidi had become involved and helped Emad shape what had started as a home project and grown to become freelance video journalism into a feature documentary. The footage is supplemented by Emad’s own downbeat, matter-of-fact narration.
The growing protest movement in and around Bil’in is captured by Emad’s cameras. From a small group of villagers who decide to go to the fence every Friday to peacefully protest, through to much larger scale demonstrations. We also see how Emad’s own life and family are affected, as his brothers are arrested one after another, before Emad himself is finally taken in. Through Emad’s camera we see the impact on individuals of political decisions taken at a higher level. This film is by its nature intensely personal – a tiny fragment or snapshot of a hugely complex situation. But what a gloomy snapshot it is “ punctuated by smoke grenades and bullets, and soldiers hammering on village doors in the dead of night.
The five broken cameras give the film its structure, as does the growth of Gibreel “ from newborn at the start through to a six year old who has seen and understands far too much. Gibreel features in the film’s most powerful scenes. For example, when his first words are ˜wall’ and ˜army’. When his mother asks him the situation frightens him and he tries to pretend he’s not scared, before finally admitting to it. When Emad reflects on all the violence and asks how they can prevent their children from being angry and full of hate after all they have seen and everything they have lost? And Emad knows there cannot be peace in the West Bank unless hatred and anger can be put aside.
Towards the end, there are small signs of hope “not least the villagers’ commitment to non-violent protest and in the symbol of Emad’s sixth, unbroken camera. But overall this quietly poetic visual memoir is a bleak, though very powerful film.