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A masterpiece that deserves your attention
on 26 February 2013
Several years ago a Palestinian farmer decided to get hold of a video camera to capture key moments in his young son's life. He could have had little idea back then that this decision would result in some of the most powerful documentary footage ever seen and him walking down the red carpet in Hollywood with his wife and son.
Knowing that this film had been nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category (I watched it days before the ceremony) I had anticipated something of a masterpiece. It certainly lived up to my expectations and more. As another reviewer has already indicated - it is difficult to comment on some scenes without giving too much away. I do have a serious piece of advice for anyone planning to watch this film though. Try not to become too fond of its central characters.....
....but of course, it is impossible not to fall in love with the personalities involved. After all they are delightful and highly lovable people. They are ordinary men, women and children who simply want to farm their land and to live their lives safely and in peace but their world is turned upside down by the on-going expansion of the occupation. For anyone reading this review who feels that the last statement is politically charged....The British Government refers to the area in which the film's events take place as the Occupied West Bank and considers the settlements that displace Palestinians to be illegal. That is the official Foreign and Commonwealth Office position. So there is no controversy in me spelling out the facts.
I already knew something of the situation in the Occupied West Bank before I bought this film. I have not been there myself, but I have friends who have served as volunteer observers in the region. Their mere presence as witnesses can help to inhibit the brutality of the police and soldiers who seemingly act with impunity. Despite having heard eye witness accounts of the beatings, arrests and humiliation that is part of life for Palestinian men, women and children, there are some scenes in this film that genuinely shocked me. In fact I found myself wondering during one scene in particular whether the soldier holding the gun realised he was being filmed. Surely he would not have done what he did if he had known his actions were being recorded?
The film which is a joint Palestinian/Israeli collaboration tells three stories. The story of a family whose lives are captured through a series of "home movies"; the story of a village and its inhabitants and their struggle to retain (or regain) their land through "fly on the wall" type footage; the story of the Palestinian people in true documentary style, cataloguing their history and culture and the injustice they suffer. This film will go a long way to challenge many false assumptions that people have made about the situation. You do not see this version of events on the BBC.
The central theme is a simple one. The residents of the West Bank town of Bil'in do not accept the theft of their land or the destruction of their olive trees. They have maintained a dignified weekly protest. No bombings, no bullets, no armed resistance. This is straight out of the Martin Luther King book of non-violent protest. Their peaceful resistance is however met with force of the most violent kind. Barrages of tear gas grenade, spray from water canon of "skunk-water" are regularly sent in their direction. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.
There are some lighter moments. For instance the attempt by the villagers to take advantage of a law passed by Israel to make land theft even easier for settlers. Under this law, if a settler puts down a portacabin type structure on Palestinian land they effectively claim that land for themselves. The villagers try to disrupt the delivery of these cabins as they arrive on the back of low-loaders. But of course the settlers are accompanied by heavily armed soldiers. In one sequence, the villagers decide to play the settlers at their own game by placing their own temporary structure on land that had been taken from them in an attempt to claim it back. But of course, the occupying power has the machinery and weaponry to simply come in and remove it. To paraphrase Paul Weller, the laws are seemingly made by and for the Israelis.
One thing comes over very clear from this film though. No matter how much land Israel continues to take from the people of Bil'in, their spirit remains steadfast. There is no sense there that they are going to give up their dreams or their rights anytime soon.
Amidst the violence there are some Kafkaesque scenes. Palestinians can be banned and forcibly removed from land declared to be a "closed military zone". It would appear from the film that a solider can decide on a whim to declare any area he chooses to be a closed military zone. Again, I will not give away the storyline, save to say that one particular location in the film is probably the last place you would expect could be declared a closed military zone, but the absurdity of designating this place as such does not prevent the soldiers in question from having the chutzpah to use their absolute power to do so.
With the aid of the eponymous five broken cameras over the course of six years, Emad Burnat allows us to see what is really happening in the Holy Land and it is not pretty. Even though this film didn't take the award - it will inspire all who watch it. It certainly deserved its "best documentary nomination" and I suspect Emad Burnat and his Israeli co-director Guy Davidi only failed to scoop the Oscar on the night due to some incredible competition.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough.