Directors Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat at New Directors/New Films 2012. Photo by David Godlis.
In this interview published in two parts, the co-directors of 5 Broken Cameras, Israeli Guy Davidi (part one) and Palestinian Emad Burnat (part two), discuss their experience working together as activist-filmmakers in the Palestinian town of Bil'in. Both proud of the results of their collaboration and slightly dazed by the strong reception their film has received, the men were generous with their time, and eager to contextualize the events their film documents.
How did you and Emad [Burnat, co-director] come to work together?
I came to Emad's village, Bil'in in the beginning of the demonstration in 2005, quite early. I was already following what was going on in other villages. In Emad's village they began to find out that the [Israeli army] was going to take their land and they started to initiate this movement. So very fast, Israeli protesters and peace activists started to go there, and these were my friends. Well, “activists,” I like that word better. After I came to the village, we all felt that it was going to be very important. There were really strong relationships between the Israeli activists and the Palestinian villagers. And I started to do what I could, which is making films. I made four films. One of them was spread all over the world and then I made a feature-length documentary about the water issue in the West Bank. And for that film, I stayed in Bil'in for two to three months. So during this period of time, I really got to know the village from the inside, and to know emotionally what it means to live under the occupation. And it also allowed me to work on the text of 5 Broken Cameras. I had known Emad from the start. He was very important, because he was a villager who had a camera. I mean, there were hundreds of journalists from all over the world. There was even a big film made around that time. But Emad was the only one who stayed there during the week, after the demonstrators left. So, when soldiers came during the night or made arrests, he was the only one to film that.
At the time, he didn't want to make a movie. He wasn't a filmmaker, he didn't have training. But as time went on and other films were made about the village, he began to think how long he'd been filming and how much important footage he had. He thought that he should make his own film. In 2009, he approached me and said he wanted to make a film about Bil'in. Well, I think at the time he wanted to make a film about Phil and Adeeb. But I wasn't sure then. The subject was already known. The movement in Bil'in and other villages had been mediatized, so I wasn't sure we could make a new film [about the subject]. The only way we could do it, I thought, was to go through his personal experience of what happened in the village. And I discovered, as I went through his footage, that over the years he had been filming everything, including his family. [From] these images, we could create a personal story, and once Emad realized it was going to be a very new thing [showing] everything that happens in the village, and that this personal footage was necessary to make a movie, he accepted.
Would it be fair to say that much of the footage was filmed before the idea for the project began?
Yes, completely. I knew that as an Israeli, to participate with Emad, a Palestinian, on this film—I mean, I'm a filmmaker, and I have a different background from him, so it was clear to me that I would need to be empowering his voice, to put him in the film as the protagonist. Using his material was very comfortable for me. Even when we shot new scenes from 2009 on, I tried not to be present when Emad was filming. Sometimes we used other people's footage as well. For instance, Phil died, and we tried to get any footage we could of Phil. But 80% of the film is Emad's footage.
How did you fund 5 Broken Cameras?
We had great cooperation with the Greenhouse Development Project. It's a Mediterranean development project, initiated by an Israeli foundation, but it's sponsored by Europeans. So it's a European project. And the film was really formed during these sessions. Then we got European funding from French and Dutch television. And then the New Israel Fund came on, and then Israeli television came on board. And not just with money. They were really enthusiastic about it, and they contributed all along the way. And there was American and Canadian and even Asian funding.
When it came to the finished project, the editing and voice-over, would you say that was mostly your doing? And what does it mean to direct a film when you weren't around while it was being filmed?
When I first met with Emad, there were seven or eight hundred hours of footage. So we had to build a script and focus on storytelling. It wasn't easy for Emad to accept [the idea of] a personal film. But I think I was needed there, as a filmmaker—when we decided to make a personal story, it made my presence, I think, even more important. Because even the voice-overs, even the way they were written, this is from a kind of internal point of view, but it is impossible for a person to have this kind of view of himself, really, without someone from the outside analyzing it. It was very difficult for Emad to understand the way he [had grown], the way his kids [had grown], what was abnormal about the situation—these things were not clear to Emad at all. He needed me to say it and then he accept[ed] it. So I was kind of illuminating parts of his life.
In the beginning of the process, we sat on a rooftop in Bil'in and had a conversation, and out of this the text was born. I wrote it. The poetic style is a bit my way of speaking; Emad is not a talker. But Emad admits that I know things about him where he agrees [after he hears them] and says it's completely right. He needs me to have this reflection about his experience. After 2 years of me editing the film, Emad was kind of looking at the footage for the right moment. And then together we found new material, and he was shooting new stuff as well. After 2 years, I just could not do the editing by myself, and we worked together. And then we decided to do a last editing session in Paris with a French editor, which lasted a month. Her sensibilities had a tremendous influence on the film. I think the construction was already there, but she [helped with] entering into a scene and understanding the delicacy involved. And for me, it was hard, because I'm also part of the story, as an Israeli activist. It was hard to choose what information we needed [in order] to tell the story to an international audience. Her input was very important for that.
Would you give us an example of something in particular?
There was the image of an olive tree cut from the land, and I used it in the beginning of the film, but in this shot we see the houses of the settlements in the background, before we actually visit them. And Veronique said we were crazy not to clarify that the settlement was not part of the village. So these are small, but important details. Because for me it is clear what is the settlement and what is the village. If I see big white buildings, I think it's a settlement immediately.
Would you tell us about your background?
I'm 33. I started doing short films when I was 16, actually. I studied cinema in high school. I'm a writer, basically. At 13, I decided to be a novelist, but I've never written a book. Some years passed and I made some fiction films, but nothing that really got much coverage. Until my twenties, it was very hard for me to work in Israel. I felt that it was a very destructive environment, a very violent environment. Everything I tried to create there did not work—at all. I couldn't create a team or an atmosphere. I started studying cinema at the university, but quit after one year. There is a lot of aggression expressed towards the arts in Israel. I connect it completely with the political situation. We created a culture that is very tough to handle. So I left for Paris and I found time to reflect on my life, and to be able to come back to Israel much more determined and a bit more wise. So in 2002, I started to work as a cameraman in Israel, and very soon as a director. I think when I came back I wanted to go to the West Bank. I could not live in an Israel that was closed off. When I was in Paris, I was walking around the markets speaking with Arabs freely, things that for Israelis are “not permitted.” You know, 'don't speak with Arabs. You don't know what they'll do to you'. I kind of found freedom in Paris and I wanted to express it as well in Israel. And ever since then my life was connected with the West Bank.
Sometimes Paris feels like the intellectual capital of the Middle East, no? So much talk about Middle Eastern politics takes place after the cheese and salad.
Yes, exactly, very much so. It's also very violent. I have a lot of family there, Jewish family. And the Jews in France are very emotional about the conflict. And we saw what just happened in Toulouse [shooting of child and rabbi at Jewish school]. So there's also a lot of hatred from the Arab population there. What happens in Palestine and Israel gets multiplied there. It's really a pity because I found another space in Paris, [with]in my family. Where we have an Arab married to a Jew—something you can almost never find in Israel. So, I found these stories in Paris and I held onto them and that's a good thing. It's important to solve the conflict because it affects other places.
Do your Jewish relative and their Arab spouse talk politics?
Yes, very much. They argue. I think for most of the Arabs, it is very hard to understand the impact of history on the Jews; the intensity of it, and how much it enters into the soul. And for Jews as well, it's hard to understand the connection between different Arabs. Even the [very] fact that there is a kind of connection between Arabs; that when a Palestinian dies in Gaza, someone in Morocco feels it was directed at him personally, in a way. As an Israeli, I'm not a Jew in New York, so I don't identify too much. Too much identification can be dangerous. And that's what creates the problem. For example, people speaking in Egypt about how to save the Palestinians from Israelis. But, you see in our film there is not a single Arab country that contributed funds to the film. Well, that's also because of my presence. But all I'm saying is that the stance is much more important than the real relations, I think.
But I would say that in general, identification is ultimately not a good thing. But empathy is a good and strong thing. Identification is dangerous because these emotions of anger and shame and guilt, I don't think they contribute to building real relations, in most places. And this is how the film is built. We don't want people to identify with Emad and the Palestinians' story by feeling bad for the Palestinians and putting the blame on the Israelis, which is an instinctive reaction. No, I cannot control the audience, but what I try with Emad's voice is not to say, 'I'm a victim, feel sorry for me, help me,' but 'There is suffering where I live, there is injustice and this is how I handle it.' And that's it. It creates a kind of sympathy and empathy for him and the story. And not to try to stimulate more anger. The film is about confronting anger, how Emad confronts it. The whole idea of a non-violent movement is to go on with that idea even when people die around you. You have to confront your emotions and anger. This is also for the audience, for people who will blame the Israelis, or for Israeli audience members who will think I'm trying to represent Emad as the victim. I'm not doing that. It's clear that he is a victim, but he's not trying to play the victim like Israelis are also doing. We're not playing that game of who is the real victim, which is exactly what is blocking progress in the Middle East in general. So we try to erase this discussion and say that one may feel anger and many feelings, but that you should do something constructive with it.
Towards the end of the film, Emad in a voice-over says, “Healing is a challenge in life. It is the victim's sole obligation. By healing, you resist oppression.” Is he describing himself?
Yes, he's definitely a victim. We cannot hide it; it's clear. He is a victim of injustice and a harsh reality. This text is an interesting text. But I think it was written especially for Israelis and for Jews. And for Palestinians, I also think. I think Israelis and Jews are traumatized from what they've seen for many years. Theirs is not a classic hatred that we might have seen in other places in history. I mean, we're damaged and we have to grow from this damage. Emad is taking responsibility as a current victim to say that his kids have to be sane, so he must maintain a kind of normality for them. Because, if not, he will become like the Israelis. I mean, that is my interpretation. I cannot put too many words in his mouth.
You wrote the text?
Yes. It is my interpretation of him in a way. Other people in Palestine told me that. Maybe it was the character in my last film, Interrupted Streams, who told me this. This is the whole idea of the brave people doing the non-violent movement. It is difficult for Israelis and Jews to understand, or to accept, that someone who suffered so much becomes an aggressor. And they just are unwilling to confront it. There is something blocked in our humanity that we cannot understand that.
When trauma is not dealt with, then the shadows flourish and hate grows. But that is the pessimistic result of Zionism. And Zionism itself is already a racist, colonialist expression. It was a colonialist movement, there was racism to it, but the trauma was completely fresh [for the Jews]. It was the constructive movement of people yearning for a place, so not really classic colonialism.
You and Emad are coming from different backgrounds but you have many of the same goals, it seems.
I'm a filmmaker. My role is to understand the reality and the truth. That is not the role of activists. Well, I am an activist in the sense that when I see something, I act. In that sense. Not just taking the camera to tell the truth. Not just to be in my head, but to do things on the ground. But, my most important role is that of filmmaker, and that role is to open up a subject, to refresh it. This is much more important for me as a filmmaker. When I'm in Bil'in, I have my own perspective. For me the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a psychological one. A conflict between emotions; and every individual has to handle a very complex series of complications, backgrounds and history. And I think most activists are trying to find the solution on the ground. I think for most activists, they are concerned [with] solving the issues on the ground, [so that] then we can repair ourselves of trauma and histories. But to me, I think it's more simultaneous; you cannot just change things from the outside or the inside. People have to confront and analyze their ideas, histories and emotions. For Palestinians they have to confront their emotions as victims—it is very apparent to me that they are victims. I think Palestinians are suffering a great deal, so they have a lot of emotions and anger. That's a challenge they have. For the Jews—the Israelis, we have a lot to repair. We are a people of air—
Did you say “error” or “air”?
Air. The air. You know, if the Arabs are the emotion, the water, for me the Jews are the air. They were always responsible for bringing ideas from place to place. They were not a people of the land like the Palestinians. At one point, not just after the Holocaust, they started to think that living in your head is what creates all the problems for them. And that is Zionism, trying to connect to the land. And they are not very successful with it.
If we surveyed 100 Israelis of your generation, how many do you think would be thinking along the same lines as you?
You would have to take much more than 100. In 100, I'll be the only one. In 2004, I was part of a group of activists called Anarchists Against the Wall. This Israeli group was willing to go all the way into the West Bank to be with Palestinians and protect them in very tough situations. And in that time there were so many demonstrations around there. And we were 30 people going around, a very close group, protecting the Palestinians. Because our presence as Israelis was important. And now the army is never sure in a demonstration when there are Israelis there and when not. If you take 100 Israelis and ask them what they think, most of them, or maybe a big part of them, would say I'm a traitor. And some of them would say they are apolitical, or they don't want to get into it. But when you don't have an opinion, you're actually holding the mainstream opinion as your own. And several people would actually support me, but with several caveats. If you ask 1000, you will have a few people who support me completely.
Working with Emad, did you find yourselves rubbing off on one another, or were your lives too different?
For the better and worse, we have different backgrounds, ideas and privileges. I got to have an education, but Emad's was by his own hands. His training in cinema, too. Everything is completely independent. It's very inspiring the way he [has] handled his life, the way he developed during the creation of his film. And from the very beginning, he said, “Guy, I trust you. Take the footage; let's do the film.” But I think most of the time I had carte blanche to go ahead and interpret him. And I think the only important difficulty we had in the creation of the film was dealing with the most personal and intimate moments. In the beginning, it was hard for Emad to go that way. He was thinking about how he would be seen by his community for putting himself at the center of what was really a community-wide movement where everyone has their own stories to tell. And the only one who gets paid respect is the one who pays with his life. But Emad was afraid of putting himself in the center, with so many people suffering, and saying “But me too, I am suffering a lot!”. But I can imagine how he felt with Gibreel [Emad's youngest son] telling him about Phil's death, and thinking about the power of that. But he was not ready to put himself at the center. He had the luck, in a sense, that I pushed him to do it. And I had the luck to understand that it was possible. When I asked him to shoot footage with his wife in very intimate moments, he was afraid to be judged. And I think the most difficult footage was during his house arrest. That material he was hiding from me. I knew that he was arrested, and I always asked how we could make the point of his house arrest. And then after a long while he came to me and told me he had footage. [Under house arrest], he was disturbed and fragile, and he even says that at that moment he doesn't fit the image of a Palestinian hero. He was broken there and that moment was hard for him.
And then he has an accident. What exactly happened?
He was going to work on the other wide of the wall, filming the settlements. And working the land.
He is a farmer?
Yeah, when you're a villager, you always have two occupations. One is always being a farmer. And most of the people are unemployed, so they eat what they grow.
During his accident, he was driving or someone else was driving. And the land was bumpy, and he crashed. We do not say in the film that he crashed into the wall, but it's kind of a funny coincidence. And I think it's not just a coincidence. There was kind of a bad karma and bad energy all around the area.
His internal organs were damaged, he was in a coma for 20 days, and almost died. It was very serious. And he says that if he had been placed in a Palestinian hospital and not an Israeli one, he would have died. Now, he has an implant holding things together. And we see the shot with his big belly at the end with the five cameras.
If you ask Emad about these things, it's really delicate. I have to tell the truth the way the film is built, but I must be delicate with it, and for us to keep a good relationship with all that is going on. If I say that I wrote the text, yes, it is true, but I was inspired by Emad. So there is kind of an atmosphere of doing it together, and that is important for us. It's the truth, but there are moments where, not during the filmmaking but now—since there is a big success for the film—it can be hard. We managed through some hard times and now we're really good. I wrote the text, but it is an interpretation of him. I don't want it to be like the project is accounted for by task, like 'he did that and I did this'. It was something we did together over several years.
How did he get five different cameras?
The second and third he got from a French NGO. I think he got one or two from Israeli activists. And I think at one point he bought one, but the money came from an NGO.
Stay tuned for part two of our interview, in which we speak with Guy Davidi's co-director Emad Burnat...