The film focuses on the Palestinian village of Bil’in in the West Bank and how the people of that town have focused their nonviolent resistance to the Israeli separation barrier that has taken most of the village’s arable land. To use the term “heartbreaking work of staggering genius” might be a slight exaggeration, but only slight. It's been a few days since I watched the film, but some of the images are still seared into my eyes and my emotions are a jumble when I try to describe the film.
The film chronicles the life of Emad's five cameras, as each falls victim to some form of destruction, and with them the struggle of the people of Bil’in, starting in 2005. In parallel to this is Gibreel, Emad’s newborn son and the story of his first few years living in the shadow of the Israeli occupation. You see the life of the people of Bil’in through the lens of Emad's camera. But, more telling are those images you see reflected in Gibreel’s eyes.
As the separation barrier expanded, Bil’in shrunk, gradually receding as the shadow of the nearby settlements slowly stretched out across the land. As the barrier grew, it took on new shapes, starting as a mere fence, but ultimately growing into a full series of barriers, roads, and checkpoints. Beyond that fence lay most of the villages olive groves and the vestiges of life before the 1967 occupation. It was to those checkpoints that the residents of Bil’in began travel to every Friday, seeking some outlet for their anger.
Through Emad’s lens unfolds the pain, the confusion, loss and rage directed towards the IDF and the settlers they over-zealously protect. But, underneath that, the main story of the film remains daily life in Bil’in, the joy of family, the undying Palestinian sense of humor and hope. Each family struggles to maintain some semblance of normality as life around them changes. Emad captures the aspects of this struggle through his family and friends as they deal with the loss of their land, restrictions on their movement and their attempts to bring about, or undo, change in Bil’in.
Central to this effort for change have been Emad's friends and family. There is ‘Pheel’ (Bassem Ibrahim Abu-Rahma), an almost constant companion and playmate to the children of the village, and a mainstay of good humor for the adults. Adeeb Abu Rahmah, leader of one of the village’s popular resistance committees, Emad’s brothers and nephews and others who faced the Israelis across the barrier. Over the years, each participated in the struggle, faced arrest and jail time, loss of their land and the further suffering of their families. They held to their spirit of nonviolent resistance, often creating unique methods for their protests, sometimes mimicking the illegal tactics of the settlers across the barrier.
As the Israeli response to Bil’in’s weekly protests escalated from stun grenades and tear gas to bullets and cannons, the spirit of the people in the village grew stronger. As the protesters fell to gas, batons and even bullets, as Emad’s cameras suffered the same fate, the people grew stronger, their resistance more defined. And as Israel instituted new ways to punish people for simply living in their homes, Bil’in solidified in its spirit. But, as both sides of the struggle grew stronger in their ways, trapped in the middle were the children of the village, including Emad’s sons.
The movie, in its entirety grabs hold of your emotions and drags you in to the life of the village. But, it is the looks on Gibreel’s face as he grows up that will haunt you. When he confronts his father, and asks why he can’t simply stab the Israeli soldiers at the protests, you can feel a piece of a young child’s innocence die. As a parent, I found myself constantly scanning scenes and watching the children’s faces, wondering what was going through their minds as they watch their parents protest, a gas grenades rain down on the village, as the olive groves burn, as people they know are arrested and die. You find yourself wondering how you would respond to the same, but more importantly, whether you have raised your children as well as the people of Bil’in, to embrace nonviolence in the face of such anger.
In the end, I cannot say enough about this film. It drives home life under Israeli occupation in a way that many films cannot. While the spirit of these movies remains the same, what you see through the lenses of Emad’s five cameras is simply life in Bil’in. If you think you understand what Palestinians suffer on a day to day basis, watch “5 Broken Cameras,” I guarantee it will surprise you.By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist