Interview With Emad Burnat, “5 Broken Cameras”

Posted by Jonathan Robbins on 6.1.2012

In the second installment of our discussion with the directors of 5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat tells us about his background, his near-fatal accident, and a possible connection between the Bil'in protests and the Arab Spring.

5 Broken Cameras screened at this year's New Directors/New Films festival. It opened May 30th at Film Forum in NYC and in select cities soon. For more information, visit the film's Facebook page.

What is your background as a filmmaker?

Before 2005, I was shooting [footage] but not so much. When the people in my village decided to start a resistance against the construction of the wall, I decided to take part with my camera. Starting in 2005, I documented all the actions, events, and demonstrations every day, every week. Daily life in the village, my life, my boys. So 2005 was the real start of shooting.

And how did you meet Guy [Davidi, co-director]?

In 2005 he came as an activist to my village. I was filming and he was protesting and I saw him. He came after that many times. Because I was the only cameraman in the village, everyone got to know me. After 5 years of filming and documenting, when I decided to make a film, a project, I called him and asked if he wanted to join the project.

And what led you to pick him in particular?

The decision was not to pick him, like...It was not a political decision. It was because I knew him, because he had come to make a documentary before where I was filming. I thought I might ask him if he was interested, but it was not a political decision or because he is Israeli and I am Palestinian. No, it is because we were friends, and it was a natural decision.

And the film is a collaboration. Am I right that you did most of the camerawork?

Yeah.

And you do the voice-overs, but you two wrote the text together?

Yeah, yeah. You know, it is a story about me, a personal story from my point of view. But you know, it [came] after many years of shooting. If you look into the footage, you realize when I was documenting and following my sons, at the same time I was following my friends and the demonstrations. I was planning to make this kind of movie, but I was not sure if I would make it very personal. So, for me to decide to make it very personal, that decision came very late. But you know, it was in my mind to make my film, my movie. I was like the parent for it over those years as I focused on friends and on Gibreel, my [young] son, growing up. The project, [Guy and I] sat together and we recorded the voice-over. We constructed and discussed everything.

What year did you begin to review the footage and edit?

Since we decided to make it personal, I went back and looked for the personal footage and began the editing. Before that, we discussed how the story was going to be and we wrote the story. After that, we started to edit and cut. We started editing in the beginning of 2010.

And you worked with a French editor, as well?

Yeah, we did the last editing in Paris.

What kinds of films do you like? Are you a movie person?

For me, I like fiction movies, action movies. My favorite actor is Jennifer Lopez. Yeah, I like her movies. And I like Robert Redford. We met at Sundance. There are many directors and actors I find interesting. But, for documentaries, I like when the documentary is natural, when you feel that message in the story. There is a message to tell, not just [about] making something for business. When I see documentaries with a strong message, I like that.

OK, you had five cameras destroyed.

Yes, some of these cameras were smashed and repaired.

One of them was hit by a tear gas canister.

Many cameras were hit by tear gas or bullets. One of these cameras saved my life, when a soldier shot it with two bullets. So I keep this camera, to remember. The bullet is still inside the camera. Other cameras were hit by gas canisters, or smashed by soldiers or settlers.

Was it the soldiers or settlers who were the bigger obstacle for you?

I think the soldiers, because I spent a lot of time filming the actions of the soldiers. So you can find in my stuff [that] it is 95% dealing with the soldiers, because I was not close to the settlers. It was just when I went to the other side of the wall, to film the construction, the illegal work there; only in those moments I showed settlers.

We hear you saying several times in 5 Broken Cameras that you have a “permit to film.”

Yes, I had a permit, a press ID, because I was working for Reuters for two years. I gave them footage. But sometimes the soldiers [didn't] care about permits or cameras, but I tried to keep filming and [to] capture everything. I tried to work in the legal way. I know that there is no law in the world against cameras. There is no law. But I was trying to work in the legal way, so when the soldier asked me if I had a permit, I told him yes.

Would you tell us about your accident, where your truck crashed?

It was a tractor, not a truck. We used to go to the land, to cross the gate and go to the land with the farmers. Because the farms are near the settlements. I used to film there and help the farmers. The road [used to be] straight but the soldiers changed it to make the wall. So they changed it and we had to go up the hill and then down. So on the way back when we passed the gate, the tractor lost control and hit the fence. Yes, I was on the tractor with other people and with two of my children.

Were they OK?

Gibreel was lightly injured and the other one, nothing happened. But the badly injured [one] was me.
I don't know what happened, because it was very fast. Because it was steep, and the tractor lost control and then the tractor hit the fence, and I remember nothing after.

We see you on the ground afterwards, looking dazed.

Yeah, looking around, but I knew nothing. I was for two months in the hospital.

Are you all better now, or you still have to be careful?

I still have to be careful, but I'm OK.

Did you find that the camera could protect you?

In the beginning, I thought the camera could protect me and those around me. I thought I could use it for many purposes. To use it as a strong witness, and to use it in the Israeli court, and to put footage on the internet, and to give the media footage. So, we did use it for many purposes in the beginning. And I felt that I had a strong weapon always, and I felt I was strong enough to do what I was doing. I was not afraid, I was not scared. I was always close to the soldiers and I wanted to capture everything. But, when the camera was hit the first time, it gave me a bad feeling that I was risking my life. When I was injured, and the camera was again broken, I started to feel the camera could not protect me. But, when the camera was hit by two bullets and saved my life, in this moment, the camera was protecting me. [On the other hand], one time at night when the soldiers came to the village and I was filming, I was alone. So they arrested me and they took the camera and the tape and they beat me and took me to jail. At that moment the camera was no protection. Because I went to jail, I was beaten, and I was [placed under] house arrest.

It is important that I was documenting and filming everything. Because after we finished the film, and it is getting success everywhere, and getting attention, I feel strongly that what I was doing, every moment of it, was very important; all my experiences, both bad and good. I [see now] when I am telling the story and showing this footage, each moment was very important.

Where has the film taken you?

The film was premiered and won two prizes at IDFA, Special Jury Award and the Audience Award. Then it was selected to the Sundance Film Festival, where we won the directing prize. After IDFA we went to Stockholm and Prague and the film won important awards. And now, I'm just coming back from the Netherlands, the Hague. And I got the news yesterday that the film won a prize in Oslo. So, it is winning a lot of awards.

Congratulations.

Thank you. So it is getting success and attention everywhere, and people like the film. It touches people and the reaction is very good.

What were you up to before you started filming? I know you worked for Reuters.

I was a farmer. Many kinds of other work, too. But I was also filming before 5 Broken Cameras.

You farmed olives, yes? As we see you doing with your wife in the film.

We use them to make oil and to eat olives. There are many ways of preparing olives. But most people use it for the oil.

There is a point towards the end of the film where you have a voice-over in which you say, “Healing is a challenge in life. It is a victim's sole obligation. By healing you resist oppression.” Would you talk about that line, and what it means for the film? Would you tell us more about that line? Did you write it together?

It is to use the camera as protection, and as a witness, and to use it also to heal. Because if you have no job, no money, how do you survive and how do you heal? It became difficult for me. I mean that I used the camera to heal, to survive, and to remember. To remember. Because the camera reminds me of all scenes of the past. To use the camera as a witness. You know, the camera became like my friend. The camera was connected to me, so to leave the camera and put it away was difficult for me. So I felt my responsibility was to take the camera and keep filming. Filming I could heal myself and use the camera as[a] witness and for change. To open people's eyes.

So when you were making the film, you were thinking of a wider audience...

The most important [thing] was to reach the people outside. Because most people don't know what's happening in Palestine. They hear about it and see it on the news, but they don't know the truth. To use the footage and the personal story, and to put all of this in one film is very touching and very strong.

In the film, you heal from your physical injuries. But, in your voice-over, you speak of a different kind of healing. In this text, for you, who are the victims who must work to heal themselves?

Of course, it's very clear we are the victims. The Palestinians are the victims because we have lived under the occupation for so long. And when we met, Guy and I, we met as friends and partners, and not as Israeli and Palestinian. But he went back to his life, after our meetings, back to the beautiful life, the good life, in Tel Aviv. And I stayed, with my problems, shooting and documenting. Living my normal life with my people in the village under bad conditions, under the occupation. So, I am the victim. But I didn't want to tell the people that I was a victim and the Israelis were doing this and that to me. But, [I wanted to show it] by telling the story, and having people understand [through] the story who is the victim.

Would you tell us about the places we encounter in 5 Broken Cameras?

In my village, it is not like other places. If you see the wall, it is going seven kilometers or more into the West Bank. In my village, when they started the [fence's] construction, some of the village was taken to the Israeli side. The land was confiscated, and then they decided to make a wall between the village and the settlement. The Palestinians were very angry and they said they would not be quiet. They started to organize peaceful movements against the construction, and after five years, the fence was removed. And the Israeli government decided to build a new wall close to the settlements and further from the village. The land was returned to the villagers.

It was a victory, then.

It's not a big victory because it's not all the land. And some people got their land back and some got nothing. It is a victory, but it is not a big victory for everyone in the village. So the people want to continue the resistance against the new wall.

Your resistance was non-violent. Did it make you more positive about the power of non-violent protest?

In general, the Palestinian people have struggled for 50 years against the occupation. Some non-violence was used in the West Bank. In about 2005, Bil'in adopted non-violence, but it maintained the non-violence, as a new way to protest, for resistance. In this way, they were able to bring people from outside; Israelis, Palestinians, and activists from all over the world against the army. And the army always reacts with violence against these people. It was very nice because the media focused on this [means] of resistance. It was not just demonstrations, but it was direct actions against the settlements and the wall. And the media liked always having something new to report on. So the village [became] a focus for the media, because every week there was another action, another idea. So the village became of symbol of the international community, of the Palestinian community. So, I think it was very successful. It is important that the village became a symbol of the nonviolent struggle. The village put the Palestinian issue on the map of the world. 

I am tempted to ask about your view of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What would you like to happen and what do you think will happen?

What I would really like to do is change out the politicians. After more than 20 years of discussion between the Palestinians and the Israelis, there is no change and the situation is getting worse. I would like to throw out the Israeli politicians and the Palestinian politicians. Just throw them out, and the people have to [have their say]. The outside world has to speak about the conflict in Palestine. And the Israeli people have to.

I think this is a problem of all the Middle East, and it's not just a Palestinian problem. So [there] has to be an agreement [between] all the Middle East[ern countries regarding the two states]. The Palestinians alone are not strong. [Other countries need] to put pressure on the Israeli government, too. They have to give the Palestinians freedom and a national state. And just to go back to their state in Israel to live as humans, in peace. And the Palestinians live in their [own] state.

Are you hopeful?

Of course, we have hope always. We have hope and we have dreams. That is why we are doing what we're doing now [with the movie].

What do you make of the Arab Spring?

I think the Arab Spring came after seven years of non-violent struggle in the Bil'in village. Everyone knows about Bil'in and knows about the struggle there. And they know it was effective. And I know many groups from outside came to participate in the village. People from Egypt, from Lebanon. So I think this way of resistance affected them in these Arab countries. It was effective. And they started their [own] revolutions.

Are you in touch with different protest leaders?

Not [with] leaders from [any specific] organization. You know, for me, after the revolutions in Egypt, in Tunisia, I didn't see big changes in th[ose] countries. There [wa]s no change in politicians, in the politics, in the relationships and cooperation. There is no real change in these countries. For Egypt, the army replaced Mubarak, and so now it is [even] more difficult for the people.

And one last thing. I say in the film that I am a farmer, but for me every Palestinian is a farmer. The doctor is a farmer, the journalist a farmer, the lawyer a farmer. This is a symbol in Palestine. Everyone is a farmer. In the film, I am risk[ing] myself to capture strong footage and strong events. It is very important to do this. To construct this footage with a personal story, with my point of view and the voice-over, makes it very strong. I think the footage was important in this film, too. Because without footage, the story is nothing.

Read part one of our interview, in which we speak with Emad Burnat's co-director Guy Davidi.

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