Seen together, filmmakers Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi could be one of those clichéd “odd couple” pairs so beloved of unimaginative contemporary Hollywood action comedies. Davidi is Israeli, tall, thin, weedy, mercurial. Burnat is Palestinian, shorter, solid, graying and insistently sober in demeanor. The peculiarly theatrical atmosphere of a morning with them is amplified by the central object in the chic quiet of their Midtown hotel — a large cylindrical aquarium filled with exotic fish.
Burnat and Davidi are as far as can be imagined from Bil’in, Burnat’s West Bank village and the location of their new film “5 Broken Cameras,” which opens May 30. Not surprisingly, the film is as far a Hollywood action comedy as the hotel’s round aquarium and atmospheric lighting are from Burnat’s modest living room. The distances can be measured in style, intent and quality of thought as much as in miles or kilometers.
Burnat is a Palestinian freelance cameraman and photographer who bought a video camera when his fourth son, Gibreel, was born in 2005. Since then he has become a frequent source of footage for Israeli TV, Al-Jazeera, Palestinian Television and many filmmakers documenting life on the West Bank. Since acquiring that first video camera with no intention other than chronicling his youngest child’s growth, Burnat gradually became an informal historian for his village, Bil’in. When the small village found itself pressed back by rapidly encroaching development from the settlements and a separation barrier that claimed much of the land, including olive groves that had been cultivated by the local population for generations, Burnat found himself not only covering the story but living it as well.
Burnat describes himself at the film’s outset as “just a peasant,” but his understanding of the tensions and passions in his community is considerably more sophisticated. So is his perspective on the dual role he has taken on. Like other filmmakers who specialize in documentaries that straddle the line between diary and history, he frequently finds himself torn between the urge to keep filming and the needs of the people around him. (Like Ross McElwee, for example (“Sherman’s March” and “Bright Leaves”), he is also frequently scolded by family and friends for living through the camera’s viewfinder.) Over the course of half-decade covered by the film, we see him growing in technical skill and self-assurance at the same time that he grapples with the difficulty of maintaining a strategy of non-violent protest when repeatedly met with force. It is this last dilemma that gives the film much of its power as one by one, five cameras belonging to Burnat are destroyed; at least two that were literally shot out of his hands.
Davidi, the more experienced filmmaker, seems almost indifferent to the film’s potential reception in some portions of the Israeli political spectrum.
“I worry not about the right — they won’t like the film no matter what,” he says. “I’m afraid of the cynical mainstream. They’ll label the film, ‘Oh, it’s another Palestinian movie.’ And that closes off discussion. We want this film to open the discussion, not end it.”
Understandably, even in the calm of the hotel lobby, Burnat is rather dismissive of an aesthetic reading of “5 Broken Cameras.”
“It’s life, not a film,” he says quietly. “Life in the last two years has been very difficult in our village. I’m scared for the children. The soldiers come at night and I go out to film. I was hit by soldiers, shot at; my camera was smashed by a bullet. My wife wanted me to stop and find another job, have a normal life. But ours is not a normal life.”
When he speaks about filming, Burnat doesn’t sound like most filmmakers either.
“I saw the camera as my friend, my protector,” he says. “It is a very strong witness. I have a daily responsibility to keep doing what I’m doing.”
The situation in Bil’in contributed to his sense of necessity, of shooting footage for more the artistic exercise.
“It’s a very small village,” Burnat says. “I was the only one with a camera. When the army came people would call me, ‘You have to come!’ With the camera there, people feel they are more protected.”
Over the course of the film’s 90 minutes, and six years, we see Burnat’s family grow; Gibreel grows from toddler to boy, and his older brothers begin the path through adolescence. We also experience the ebb and flow of the conflict, a pounding counterpoint to the benign moments of family life.
Talking about the virtues of spending a long time on a documentary, Davidi touches on one of the film’s great strengths.
“When Emad is growing as a father, this is his challenge — to be creative and productive but also healing and nurturing,” the Israeli filmmaker says. “Anger can draw you down. In Palestine, if you let your anger run away, you can get hurt or worse.”
Davidi readily admits that as a peace activist as well as a filmmaker, he finds controlling his emotions difficult. “I have to find a way to deal with this,” he says. “If I let anger guide me, I’m less productive.”
Perhaps even more difficult was conveying that message to his children and friends, often in the heat of confrontations with Israeli soldiers.
“We have to resist, but also to like the beautiful moments,” he says. “We have to live our life, to take those beautiful moments when they come. They give us a good feeling, that something can change. We try to always have those moments, to give that feeling to my boys, to think about their future.”
“5 Broken Cameras” is a film poised on the brink of despair. On the brink but not inside the abyss.
Appropriately, it is Gibreel’s warm smile and emerging personality that give both the director and the film some hope. Burnat says at the end of the movie that he films “to heal.”
“5 Broken Cameras” presents vivid witness to the power of the image for that kind of healing.
“5 Broken Cameras,” directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, opens on Wednesday, May 30 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.