Saturday, February 4, 2012

a series of juxtapositions: a review of five broken cameras

about suffering they were never wrong,
the old masters: how well they understood
its human position: how it takes place
while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

begins w. h. auden's poem musee des beax arts.

the documentary five broken cameras begins with a juxtapostion of images that highlights the suffering experienced by the villagers of bil'in,  a tiny village on the west bank.  in addition to heartbreaking tragedy, though, we also see the surprising amount of joy and hope the citizens of bil'in manage to maintain even under siege.  the ability of directors emad burnat and guy davidi to portray this seemingly indestructable core of hope and happiness the villagers of bil'in sustain against an overwhelmingly armed and organized israeli army is the great strength of this documentary.  the captivating images and characters in the film make us stop and care about the plight of these people, unable to continue "walking dully along."

we see, in the opening moments of the film, thousand year-old olive trees being upended by a bulldozer.  a thousand years of growth destroyed before we can blink.  in a way it is one of the most powerful and sickening images in the film--the destruction of the olive tree with all it's attendant metaphorical and literal associations.  these trees are the life-blood of the villagers, who make their living from the land, as well as the symbol of peace, prosperity and humanity.  in one scene, a villager wraps his arms and legs around the tree and grins.  the tree looks as comfortable being embraced by the villager as a mother.  and we feel that the tree is as important to the village as a mother.

in another scene, where an entire grove of trees is being burned, a villager wails in a moving voice-over:  this tree praying to god--how could you burn it?  in another instance, little gibreel, burnat's son, toddles up to an israeli soldier and hands him an olive branch.  in yet another, the villagers carry tiny potted trees to re-plant the groves that have been destroyed past impassive armed soldiers.  the olive tree is so heavy with symbolism that these small gestures could seem over-wrought.  but the constant contextualization of the trees and their importance to the people and the land re-roots this familiar symbol, helps viewers to remember and appreciate the origins of it's powerful associations as not only symbol, but as literal sustenance.

though this could have been a film about weeping and wailing, the beautiful surprise of it was the joy and exuberance the villagers displayed in their protests; in the face of tear gas, stun grenades, and m-16's, the village men march with toy instruments borrowed from their children's play things, or "el phil", one of the leaders in the resistance, tall, broad and handsome, almost like the village hercules, running along the barrier flying a kite in the face of the soldiers.  or the group of village boys, skinny as young saplings, swaggering towards the barrier.

we're going to get our land back, one confident boy, no more than 12 years-old, proclaims.

burnat and davidi were smart to continuously place the small, vulnerable, sometimes funny and clever, gestures of the resisters in this unevenly matched battle against the armored vehicles, heavily armed and armored soldiers, and barbed wire.  or the stunningly rugged  hills dotted with beautiful trees set against the back drop of the horrible, cheap construction of the new israeli settlements.

at the beginning of the film, i was somewhat skeptical of the central conceit of it--burnat tells his story by focusing around the lives of his five cameras, broken in the resistance, with which he used to document six years of protest. i was worried at first that this could be merely a high concept gimmick used to market the film, but it turned out that the cameras actually seemed to evolve into characters in the film. it turned out that burnat, who was the cameraman, director, and also subject of the film, was making a crucial point about witnessing, telling, and recording.

the victim's only obligation is to heal. . . i film so i can heal, he says towards the end of the film.

the filming of this struggle, a gesture that appears to have begun as one of burnat's small points of resistance,  has become a larger gesture as the film has gone out into the world.  it has since won awards at festivals and been signed for distribution.

i saw the film in an auditorium filled with utah teenagers in salt lake city at the sundance film festival during a special high school screening.  at the end of the film, the kids gave burnat, davidi and the film a standing ovation.  how did you not fight back?  were any of the soldiers kind?  how did you feel about your sons growing up like this?  do you still live there?  what can american teens do to help? the high-schoolers asked.  they were clearly moved and compelled to do something to alleviate the suffering of the villagers of bil'in, as evidenced by this unusually long question and answer session at the end of the screening.

auden knew that "the human position of suffering" has to be relegated to a dark and humble corner, has to take place while someone else is eating, or opening a window, or walking dully along. In order for humans to survive, to retain sanity, it seems we have to look away from suffering, to tell ourselves that everything is okay in the world.

five broken cameras accomplished the complex and virtuosic feat of making us stop to observe and empathize while at the same time acknowledging that, as long as the small human gestures of resistance continue in the face of an overfunded overgrown machine of aggression against basic humanity, it will still, somehow, some day, be okay.

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