Oscar-Nominated Documentary Brings Palestinian Plight to Center Stage

Co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian, 5 Broken Cameras is one of two documentaries from the Middle East nominated for an Oscar.

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Kino Lorber

These days, there is little prospect of a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The process to forge two separate states, codified in Oslo two decades ago, has long gone off the rails—and many don’t seem to mind. Naftali Bennett, a right-wing newcomer and leader of Israel’s Jewish Home party, bluntly told TIME’s Jerusalem bureau chief Karl Vick in a recent interview that “it’s obvious there’s never going to be a Palestinian state.” And the results of recent Israeli elections—though they humbled reigning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—likely won’t change the prevailing status quo.

“The election is meaningless,” says Guy Davidi, an Israeli whose voice Americans will hear more of this year. “Nothing has changed in Israeli society. Even the left’s discourse has become more right-wing.” Davidi, a filmmaker and activist, is the co-director of 5 Broken Cameras, which is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars next month. The film charts roughly five years of non-violent struggle in the West Bank village of Bil’in, the home of Davidi’s co-director, Emad Burnat, a Palestinian who began documenting protests against an Israeli settlement and land seizures there with an amateur camera. The film’s title refers to the tools used to make it—five cameras that belonged to Burnat, broken mostly when recording Israeli security forces cracking down on his village’s demonstrations. Whatever your view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Academy cannot be faulted for spotlighting what is a remarkable act of bearing witness.

5 Broken Cameras is tightly wound around the figure of Burnat. It is at once personal—dwelling on the early steps of his youngest son Gibreel as he waddles through terrain littered with the casement shells of Israeli bullets, the stoicism of Burnat’s courageous wife and his own profound sense of melancholy and loss—and yet also impersonal. Burnat is the town’s resident journalist, the one who stands at a remove while his friends and family chant slogans and confront Israeli authority. In an almost surreal scene, Burnat stays silent behind the camera as his elderly father clambers in grief atop the front of an Israeli jeep transporting Burnat’s brother to prison.

“Emad has created a film from years of [protest], from a lot of despair and difficulties and challenges,” says Davidi. “It is grown from pain and suffering.” The protests at Bil’in, which began in 2005 after Israel had started building a wall through the village’s land, soon attracted international attention and have been widely documented by Israeli and foreign journalists. Non-violent weekly rituals of marching and chanting—in some moments, actual olive branches are waved at Israeli soldiers—they also drew sympathetic Israeli and foreign activists to their ranks.

(MORE: Meet Yair Lapid, the new force in Israeli politics.)

But, as the film shows, these demonstrations eventually bubbled over into confrontations with Israeli soldiers. 5 Broken Cameras hammers into the viewer an endless, jarring loop of asymmetric violence. The Palestinians of Bil’in squat on what was once their farmland and approach en masse a boundary fence that they believe shouldn’t exist only to be met by tear gas and gunshots. Many are arrested and wounded. The cycle repeats itself over and over again, captured by Burnat’s five broken cameras. The most climactic moment of the film is when an unarmed Bassem Abu-Rahmah—a handsome, charismatic man known as “el-Pheel,” or the elephant, for his broad shoulders and “child’s heart”—dies after a tear gas canister fired at close range hits him in the chest. Bil’in’s collective grief thereafter is palpable. “With all this despair around, Emad just keeps going on and on,” says Davidi. “It’s a story of resistance.”

Despite this doggedness—regular protests continue in Bil’in and other villages to this day—the tidal flow of current events is set against them. The Netanyahu government has stepped up its construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, deemed illegal by much of the international community. The latest, most controversial move involves building on a parcel of land east of Jerusalem known as E-1. A Palestinian tent outpost there—not unlike the pop-up encampments Bil’in protesters inhabited on their own lost land—was swiftly dismantled by Israeli troops last week.

(MORE: Palestinians use Jewish settler tactics—with less success.)

Aware of the difficult struggles ahead, Davidi knows how valuable global attention at the Oscars can be. He’s now launching a campaign to get 5 Broken Cameras screened on primetime Israeli television and in all Israeli schools. “Everyone should watch the things we do,” he says. “They can think what they want about it, but at least they can’t be in denial.” Davidi is particularly insistent about wanting to show the film to younger generations. “My target audience was not necessarily adults or the Academy,” he says. “It’s Israeli youth, kids who should go to military service knowing what they’re doing.”

5 Broken Cameras isn’t the only documentary from this part of the world nominated for a 2013 Oscar. The Gatekeepers is a candid look at Israel’s security policies through interviews with six former chiefs of the secretive Shin Bet. But Davidi resists applauding the success of two critically acclaimed “Israeli“ films and is uncomfortable with the symbolic weight some have placed on his collaboration with his Palestinian colleague. “The film isn’t representing a country,” he says. “And at the end of the day, we’re just two human beings.” Would he celebrate if he wins the Oscar? “An Oscar with no peace,” says Davidi, “doesn’t mean very much.”