Cinema 2 of the New Parkway Theatre in Oakland is deserted. I take a seat against the arm of a cushy brown couch on the third tier upfrom the floor. The place is lousy with sofas and retro red vinyl chairs. They’re flung about the room, clustered around off beat end tables like so many hipsters in a beer garden.
Two more folks enter, separately. We smile thin greetings at one another before they choose their seats in distant corners according to that awkward geometry of strangers. A fourth patron glides in. I recognize him from solidarity demonstrations in the city. I wave him over.
I remind him of my name and he apologizes for forgetting it. We fidget. The lights go down and I calculate: New Parkway is making $24 dollars in ticket sales from this matinee. I’m flooded with gratitude for this brave indie cinema and her clutch of pretty furniture and the (financial, political) courage it takes to screen films about Palestine in the United States. The opening credits roll.
* * *
5 Broken Cameras is a documentary that tracks five years of Emad Burnat’s life through the lenses of his video cameras. Emad was born and raised in Bil’in, a small village in the West Bank of occupied Palestine. Bil’in is now widely understood to be the thumping epicenter of nonviolent demonstrations in the West Bank, but when Emad first began filming in 2005, it was quieter.
“I bought my first camera to film my son, Gibreel,” he says.
Through Emad’s eyes, we watch Gibreel wriggle in a basinet, blow out birthday candles on a chocolate cake, and speak his first words: army, cartridge, wall.
Emad captures his friend Phil with particularly intimate humor and sensitivity. The children love Phil, he says, because he has hope, and that is rare for an adult.
Throughout the film, Phil teases and clowns his way through a swarm of children. His unsnuffable smile reminds me of the actors that I met while living above The Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp last winter. Their memory tugs at my heart.
* * *
Most synopses I’ve read of the film describe Emad as a farmer or peasant, probably because this fits the appropriate paradigm for Marketably Impoverished Palestinian Guy. But his attention to landscape — the sweeping panoramas of dusty terraced olive groves, the schooling birds in the sky — coupled with an untutored ability to see the light in other people betray him. 5 Broken Cameras is definitely not about a farmer.
It’s about an artist.
* * *
I shouldn’t have to tell you that conditions disintegrate in Bil’in, but I will. They do. Israeli soldiers abduct children in the night and launch preposterous barrages against nonviolent demonstrators. Illegal high-rise settlements are built on Palestinian land. In one scene, Emad films his own family’s bizarre eviction from their home. I cannot seem to scrub from my mind the intonation of the soldier who delivered this message. He read it from a sheet of paper. His massive, quivering shame seeped off of the screen.
“Turn that camera to the wall,” he said.
Many, many people tell Emad to quit filming. It’s the central premise and organizing structure of the documentary. One by one, his cameras are destroyed by bullets. He continues to work on borrowed cameras until those are destroyed, too. Hallas, his wife begs him in one of the final scenes. Enough filming, I’m exhausted. It’s the holy day. Take a break.
Emad rarely breaks. Even under house arrest, tucked away from his family for months, he captures listless reels of his own face, or the view from his window. He tells the psychologist who visits him that he has nothing else to do, of course I am filming.
* * *
Phil dies, shot idiotically in multiple places across his body by Israeli soldiers. He was unarmed, as many civilians are when they’re killed at nonviolent demonstrations in Palestine.
“It takes great strength to turn anger into something positive,” says Emad. Through careful editing, we see Phil’s tenderness and hope reduced in an instant to a lifeless body cradled on the rocks. My anger overwhelms me. Emad keeps filming on.
* * *
I am tempted to continue recounting the story. It is driving and deft. 5 Broken Cameraswas nominated, after all, for an Oscar, so if you want synopses there are many more online.
I would rather, however, tell you how the movie made me feel, and what it made me do.
I was not a career activist when I traveled to Palestine two winters ago. I came as an artist, hoping to teach theatre and escape the smother of my southern hometown for a few months. I knew very little about the history of Palestine, or the Middle East in general.
The people I met at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin were not farmers. Some were filmmakers; some were actors or stand-up comedians or directors. They were all as sweet and strange and alive as the people in Emad’s Bil’in.
One of them (a filmmaker, in fact) once twisted around in the passenger seat of a taxi to tell me that many people, you know, they come to Palestine to try to help our lives.
“But we know how to live,” he said. “Me, everybody at the Freedom Theatre — we teach you how to live.”
5 Broken Cameras portrays the Palestinian struggle to live under Israeli occupation with unrelenting humanity. Emad’s footage captures the fullness of real people in his village without the 2-dimensional glaze of victimhood I’ve come to recognize from many progressive renderings of Palestine. Anyone who falls beneath Emad’s lens is portrayed in all their nuance; in despondency and joy, grief and mischief and rage. Watching the film, I felt everything his characters felt onscreen.
* * *
When the lights came back up and the oud struck its final notes, I could think of nothing to say to the man seated next to me. We looked at each other. He sighed heavily with a low hum.
* * *
Two hours after the film, I’m sitting in a plastic bucket seat at the laundromat. My clothes spin. I gaze down the corridor of machines and jiggle my foot. I’m antsy and irritated because I forgot to pack my laptop and now I’m stuck here for an hour, needing desperately to dump my heart out but lacking my usual tool.
I stand and wander to the washing machine. A red towel squishes around in the soap and I think of Emad’s second camera. It was lent to him by a friend.
It doesn’t work so well if you are running, but other than that it is fine. I imagine how impossible it must have been for Emad to keep up with the Humvees and chaotic, scrambling demonstrators with that clunky camera on his shoulder.
Then I imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t tried to anyway.
I breathe into my chest, into the new cavity that’s been rooted out there by the film. I fish out the only paper I’ve got in my bag: a 2-page cover letter for a job I didn’t get. I flip it over, click my pen, and start to write…