February 18, 2013 by abbyo
UPDATE: Due to “The Gatekeepers'” unavailability–it’s still in its initial theatrical release–I won’t be able to review it before Sunday. This review of “5 Broken Cameras” is the final Oscars review I’ll be offering. Enjoy!
When debating the merits of documentary films, a common issue that comes up is manipulation. How much of what we’re seeing is true, and how much is the result of editing choices or staging? Are the subjects being fairly represented, or are they being exploited? These are valid questions to ask of every documentary. But what they essentially boil down to is this: how much of what we’re seeing has been doctored to reflect a specific point of view?
That question is the problem at the heart of the Oscar-nominated documentary “5 Broken Cameras,” about a citizen journalist in Palestine and the footage he shoots of a five-year nonviolent protest of Israeli settlements by the people in his village. The movie suffers from the obnoxiously apparent influence of an editorial hand, especially in its pretentious, disingenuous narration. It’s really a shame, too, because the raw footage that makes up the film is powerful enough to speak for itself.
Our cameraman and narrator is Emad Burnat, a Palestinian peasant farmer in the village of Bil’in, which borders on Israel’s West Bank settlements. He originally buys a camera to make home movies when his youngest son, Gibreel, is born. Eventually he becomes the main chronicler of life in the village, recording local events. When the Israeli army erect a border that cuts Bil’in’s farming population off from the olive trees that are their livelihood, Emad’s camera captures his village’s constant stream of nonviolent protests, and the increasingly hostile response they get from the soldiers.
The footage Emad shoots provides an incredible window into daily life in a combative zone, showing insight that news reports could never provide. It’s the little things that stick out, like an early scene in which Emad’s wife, hanging laundry on the roof, hears gunshots nearby and tells him matter-of-factly not to let the children go outside. It’s that reaction, or lack of it, which communicates everything we need to know; how families adapt to such a volatile way of life, and how sad it is that they should have to. The footage of the protests is very affecting, too, but the film’s most mundane moments, the ones that establish relationships between the villagers and their families, are easily its best.
If Emad and co-director Guy Davidi had stopped there, “5 Broken Cameras” would be an incredible movie, easily worth an Oscar. But they don’t. Instead, Emad and Davidi pour on an overworked narrative style that feels anything but authentic. The documentary’s narration includes lines like “I use the lens to hold on to my memories,” or repeated statements of how Emad feels the camera protects him—phrases that sound like they’re straight out of the mouth of a self-important film student, but seem odd coming from a farmer turned amateur filmmaker. I suspect most of this post-production direction came from Davidi, a professional filmmaker. But there are parts of “5 Broken Cameras” that call Emad’s ethics into question as well, especially when it comes to the safety of his family.
These are all symptoms of the problem I had with “5 Broken Cameras” as a whole: the movie feels manipulative. The nature of Emad’s raw footage paired with the film’s noble-sounding narration–coming straight from the mouth of the guy who shot the movie–feels contradictory, and ultimately completely changed the way I felt about the film as I watched it. Emad’s footage is heartfelt and humble. What he has to say about it (and what he may have been told to say about it), is about as far from humility as it’s possible to get.