Laura Flanders interviews Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, co-directors of the Academy Award-nominated documentary feature, 5 Broken Cameras, about the Israeli occupation, the separation wall, their approaches to activism and film-making and the impact of both on their lives.
Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi are co-directors of an Academy Award-nominated documentary feature, 5 Broken Cameras, about a community of farmers who use nonviolent tactics to try to save their land. The community is the community of Bil’in in the West Bank; the farmers are Palestinian and the threat to the land comes from Israeli encroachment for settlement construction and the building of the separation wall. It’s a deeply personal story about one village of many under attack, but it raises the broader question of how any community resists overwhelming force while also attempting to retain some normality in their lives and the lives of their children.
The five cameras of the title refers to the five of Burnat’s cameras destroyed in the course of making this film. As the Bil’in people’s protests escalate, Ahmad Bassam, a young man who is particularly popular with the local children, is killed.
Burnat and Davidi came to GRITtv at the start of a speaking tour that will culminate with their attending the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Just days after our conversation, the newly re-elected government of Benjamin Netanyahu announced an expansion of settlement construction in the West Bank.
Watch the full conversation at GRITtv.org and join our mailing list. An edited transcript follows.
Laura Flanders: Emad let’s start with you; you’re the man with the cameras, the Palestinian in Bil’in. Tell us about the day you received the call or got the email. How did you find out that you’d been nominated for an Academy Award?
Emad Burnat: It was not a big surprise for me because the last year the film was very successful and people loved it and were moved and touched by it all around the world. So, to be nominated for the Oscar is to me more people will draw big attention to the story, especially the Palestinian case and the Palestinian situation. For me to be on the red carpet with the famous people I have seen on TV and films – it’s good experience also, but it’s most important for me is that people all over the world will pay attention to the Palestinian situation and learn more about the daily life and the situation and the true reality of the situation in Palestine.
What about you Guy, did you have any relationship with the Academy Awards before this?
Guy Davidi: It’s ironic. It’s a big respect to be nominated. The directors I admire the most when I was young who influenced me to make films, they were not nominated. For me, for instance, John Cassavetes was an idol. I loved his films and he was never nominated. Here I am nominated with a film, and it’s kind of a big respect.
Let’s go back to the beginnings of this film. Emad – you mention in the film, you call yourself a peasant. What does that mean? What was your life like before Bil’in became involved in the struggle that it’s in now. What was life like in Bil’in when you were growing up?
EB: I think “farmer” means in the United States or Europe a real farmer, but in Palestine we call ourselves farmers because are related to the land and we have a very strong relationship between our land and us. We love our land and we are connected to our land so we take care of our land, like the kids, when you take care of your kids.
So describe it for us, what [does] the land you were taking care of when you were growing up look like?
EB: I was born there and I grew up there, my father and my grandfather, for a lot of generations, so to be related to the land and to love the land – there’s something inside that makes it impossible to just leave it at anytime and go to move from place to another place. We love our olive trees. The olive trees mean many things for us: the history of Palestine and the history of the people. It’s a very strong relationship between us and our trees and our land. It’s not just to survive from the land. When you see a tree – some people say it’s just a tree; it’s not just a tree for us, it means many things. It’s a very deep feeling, you cannot feel it if you are not related with your mind, with your feeling, with your soul with the land.
Guy, you didn’t just come in as co-director at the end of the day on this film, 5 Broken Cameras. You spent time in Bil’in long before the film really got going. Talk about it. What brought you to the little community of Bil’in, why and how did it seem to you when you first saw it?
GD: I joined the nonviolent movement quite early in 2003. I was going to different villages along with other Israeli activists. There are not a lot of supporters in Israel, we are a small minority and I started in 2003 to go to demonstrations and it was a big thing. I told the people around me and my friends were in shock: Why are you going there, it’s dangerous? So, it was a very big thing. I went there and the people there were so inspiring. You have beautiful people with sad stories, hospitality that is amazing, and people are accepting and willing to talk about different issues. So in 2005, I went to Emad’s village when the movement started because I was so inspired by what was happening there. I wanted to do more. Because I am a filmmaker, I started doing short films and I ended up doing a long film about the water issue. For that film I actually spent more than two months living there – which I think was the first time Israel was doing that [at that time.]
What happened in 2005?
GD: In 2005, one of the villages in Bil’in started to fight against the construction of the separation fence. They were organizing this nonviolent movement against the construction of the fence. It was supposed to confiscate more than 50 percent of the village. They were calling in Israeli and international activists to join, to show support, and we went there to support them…. Emad was there and he took his camera. He was just starting to film. We knew each other from doing films and he was filming for many reasons … for activism and to document and to sometimes put it on YouTube, and there was an important role in that because [of] the internet: There was a place to put the video; there was someone to talk to.
Talk about the beginning of the protests, Emad. Was there a discussion of how you were going to address this fence and the fact that it was taking so much of your village’s land?
EB: Yes, when the decision was made to construct the wall on our land and it was going to uproot in the middle of our land, we thought that 55 percent of Bil’in land will be taken to the other side. We would lose all of our lands, all of our trees.
So we decided the first time they came with a bulldozer – everybody in the village came out and started to protest and demonstrate against the bulldozers and against the soldiers who were just trying to protect the bulldozer and uproot the trees and destroy the oldest trees, and destroy the land. It was not a political decision; it was not organized; everybody decided to come out and demonstrate. After that, some people thought we had to organize this, and be organizing more events and do actions – not just demonstrations.
The village was supported by activists from all over the world after a week. I think the creative idea of the nonviolent resistance is more important – that they pay attention to the Bil’in village and the struggle in the Bil’in village. We were creating every week a new idea about nonviolence, and that resistance, and the actions, not just the demonstrations, drove more people and more media to participate and to focus on the Bil’in village.
Talk Guy, about the significance of what was happening in Bil’in. What was different about what happened there?
GD: Bil’in wasn’t the first; it was an ongoing movement, historically, even. People think, well this is a new thing in Palestine, but this is not a new thing in Palestine. But what was happening in Bil’in – that for me was very special as Emad was saying: There was a lot of creativity, a lot of new ideas and there was big openness to receive new techniques … with artistic instruments and really special ideas. What we see from the film also and I find really brilliant is to put the outpost by the Palestinians themselves: They put their own outpost on their own land that was taken by the separation fence as if to show the way the settlers are using the outpost in order to take their own land. They were really provoking and trying to create debate in the media – the Israeli media and the international media. There was something that was very strong, I thought, that made Bil’in become such a symbol.
At the very same time, Emad, you have your new son, your fourth son, Gibreel [who was just] born when all of this is beginning. That’s why you buy your first camera, to film him. You say in the film that you try to protect him but that the occupation has a way of “taking you by surprise.” What do you mean by that? How have you seen your son change?
EB: My son Gibreel was just born in 2005 in the first week of the beginning. It was for him, to open his eyes, to make his steps to the wall or to say his words about the army or the wall. It was difficult for kids to grow up like this in this situation, and so to protect him I want to show him and have him see what the life is like here – how the life is going to be in the future, because we are not living in a normal situation. We live under many pressures and we are living under occupation and he should face this in the future. At the same time, we are also trying to live our normal lives, even when we live in a difficult situation. For kids it’s not easy to grow up like this. The situation affects them.
How? How has it affected Gibreel?
EB: It’s affected them that they don’t live their childhood as normal children. They just go out and they see violence and they see soldiers around the house or in the street, and they don’t have the space to live their lives as children.
Have you seen changes in your son Gibreel? There’s that extraordinary scene where you’re by your car towards the end of the film and he’s [now four or five years old] talking about how he feels about the Israeli killing of his friend, ‘Phil.’
EB: He was affected by this. He should be playing in different places or have access to the sea and go to the sea. For a child, it’s very difficult to live this situation and be affected by what’s happening, and to be affected by – he was connected to the guy who was killed and it’s not normal for a child of five years or six years old.
Do you worry about him?
EB: Of course I worry about him. I was filming and I put my life at risk. This is what my goal was and this is what my purpose was, to show the world what’s going on here and to show my life and the situation. So, maybe I can make change or maybe make peace for him in the future.
The part that’s so chilling in that scene is his very reasonable question after his friend Phil has been killed by the soldiers. He says, “Well, why don’t we just kill the soldiers?”
EB: Yes, he thinks like children, but you feel that he is growing up in his mind. He starts asking questions: What’s happening?Wwhy his best friend has been killed? He didn’t do anything to them; why don’t you go and kill the soldiers? He thinks if I go and kill the soldiers, I solved the problem. He was affected by the situation.
What did you say to him?
EB: I told him in the scene why I shouldn’t kill them. If I go and kill them, they will kill me or send me to jail for all of my life, and I will lose him and I will lose my family. I will lose my future. They might lose their future, so I was trying to think and make my work effective that [it might] affect the situation and make change.
But your response to your son, that just killing these people won’t solve the problem – they’ll come back and take me – gets to the much bigger question of nonviolence and violence not as just community strategy, but as international strategy. The settlement movement and the settlements in the West Bank have come in for global criticism; and even recently as in this January, a national security adviser for the Israeli government said that the settlement policy is losing Israel the support of Western governments. What’s been the reaction to Israel in this film? Is there a head of steam growing behind the movement to stop the settlements and can you go back now that these settlements really have been built?
GD: Historically, there were many films that were done about the occupation … basically reflecting back to Israeli society. We are dealing with the occupation, but we are dealing our own guilt and our own issues and we sometimes are sort of hijacking the occupation to deal with our own issues, which happens a lot in many films. In this film, it was clear that my role would be first of all to empower Emad’s voice and to bring his story out there and not to bring my identity to be part of the film. The role of the activists and Israeli supporters are presented in a very modest way in this film. Even though it is important, it’s presented in this modest way because it’s important right now to hear Emad’s voice.
That said, I think what makes the film very challenging for the Israeli audience – and it’s not easy for a lot of viewers in Israel to watch it – but we were able to screen the film in the Jerusalem Film Festival and it won the best documentary award and it screened on television, it had a nice theatrical release and it’s still ongoing, and the Oscar nomination. So there’s a few thousand people that are watching the film and the film was also free to watch on the internet for the election. We are trying to promote it as much as possible; we cannot really measure it in mass. The mass of Israel are not supporters; they are not willing to watch the film. They will criticize it; they will say strong remarks against it: most of the time without really daring to watch it.
What I believe, is that when some people do watch it, they come openly to watch it. There is an emotional journey that they pass through to change. I believe social change and political change has to go through an emotional journey. It cannot be just by being informed of what is happening in Palestine. People are informed; they know well what’s being done there, but they need to be emotionally motivated to create change. You need a lot of force to face the power of the settlers, the power of the right wing in Israel. You need to find resources for that, and the film is trying to build this motivation and passion for Palestine so we know what we’re fighting for, and then we can move on. I think it will take time. In the current [moment] we cannot judge.
Obviously, a passionate part of the story is the killing you describe of Bassam – the friend of the kids. Was his killing ever investigated? Has there been anyone brought up on criminal charges? How many people have died in these struggles?
EB: I want to say that Bassam is not the first one who has been killed in the movement and the actions. Nonviolent actions like this – many people have been killed in different places in Palestine. He was killed in the village and his sister also was killed in the same village – in Bil’in. Whether you go nonviolence or violence, they will say it’s violence and you are a terrorist, so it’s very hard. The Israelis, what I think they should do is change the way that they think and the way they think about Palestinians…. I wanted to show it in the Israeli society, but after the film was shown in Israel many times – it’s been more than a year and I was following comments in Israel – there are good comments, but there are many bad comments about the film. This gave me a bad feeling about showing it and to make the change in Israel.
Has anyone been prosecuted for the killing of Bassam?
EB: The case of Bassam is open until now. Nothing has been changed. He’s been killed for about now four or five years.
Guy – did you do national service in the Israeli military? If so, did that affect your watching what the Israeli soldiers do in that film?
GD: My story is very complicated; it’s for another film. I was enrolled in the military as every Israeli has to do, but I refused after a few months. To get away from the military caused a big fight with everyone – with my family, with the people around me – so I didn’t actually serve in the military service. When I look at the soldiers, I have no idea. I have no idea of the language of the military, I’m not part of that, but both of us, I think: We come from a place that is not judging. These people are young people; they are sent to these places; they are very young with a tremendous amount of brainwashing on them. I felt it during these three months away. It was a very difficult thing to challenge all the people around you and not to do a military service. We have to remember that people are under big pressure and we have to encourage the society to change the occupation to stop the occupation, and to start the politics. We cannot expect that soldiers would do that by themselves.
[Emad], you talk about the need for Israelis to change how they think. What about Americans? We’re not big on global nonviolence as a nation.
EB: I think America is a very strong supporter to Israel, and the American people don’t know enough about political things, or they know nothing about the Middle East, or Palestine and about the life there, the situation there. I think they should watch this film so they can get more information and reality and truth about the normal Palestinian life. The situation is not just violence and war because the American people, they have been affected by the media, the negative media, the press and the wrong information. What I think we could change, would be the American people, and the film is changing many people in America and all over the world watching this film. It will be good to start with the people, but there are many pressures; they have to take the responsibility to confront their government, to put more pressure on their government, to change their policy about the Middle East and Palestine.
Guy- a last question for you, one of the nonviolent tactics that a lot of people around the world are embracing for change in Israel and Palestine is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, BDS. What do you make of it?
GD: I think right now putting pressure on Israel in general is pro Israeli. I think our society needs that. There are Israelis that are suffering from the occupation; it ruins our society. We’re becoming a very violent society; we’re controlling people for more than 40 years. I think once the occupation has been removed, Israel will really flourish. So, for me, having a boycott and sanctions on Israel is a good thing. It’s not a replacement to also do positive work, and I think the only criticism I have sometimes on the communities that do boycott, is that if we just concentrate on negative actions, then what do we create? It’s important to create something because after – even apartheid when it was removed – a lot of challenges opened up and people were not prepared for them. We have to be prepared for the challenges that will come in the day after the occupation.
LF: Thank you both. It was great talking to you, and good luck at the Academy Awards.