Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat, his wife Soraya, and their 8-year-old son Gibreel were eagerly awaiting their chance to attend the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday (Feb. 24), with Burnat's film "5 Broken Cameras" nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
As they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport after an exhausting 24-hour journey from their home in the Palestinian West Bank, immigration officers detained them. When they questioned Burnat about the reason for his visit, he showed them the Academy Awards invitation on his iPhone, but the officers were unwilling to believe him and threatened him with deportation.
As Burnat and his family waited in a small room, he texted filmmaker Michael Moore, who immediately went to work calling the State Department and Academy officials who then called their lawyers. He told Burnat to “give the officers my phone number and say my name a couple of times.” An hour and a half later, officials released Burnat and his family and allowed them to enter the country.
In the meantime, Moore had tweeted the whole sequence of events to his 1.4 million followers. One of his tweets gave Burnat’s response to the ordeal: "It's nothing I'm not already used to," he told me later. "When you live under occupation, with no rights, this is a daily occurrence."
"It's nothing I'm not already used to," he told me later. "When u live under occupation, with no rights, this is a daily occurrence."— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) February 20, 2013
Burnat remarked later, “After 40 minutes of questions and answers, Gibreel asked me why we were still waiting in that small room. I simply told him the truth: Maybe we’ll have to go back.’ I could see his heart sink.”
“I am already used to this, I don’t know any other type of life, but it kills me that my son had to learn that even outside the occupation and in America he is still a second-class human,” Burnat said.
Life imitates art
Amy Goodman, host of "Democracy Now!," called Burnat’s detention at LAX “life imitating art.”
In "5 Broken Cameras," Burnat tells the story of life under Israeli occupation in his village Bil’in, on the West Bank. In 2005, Israel began building a wall outside the village that cut off the villagers’ farmland. Burnat’s son Gibreel was born the week construction began. When Burnat bought a video camera to record his son’s young life, he decided to use it to document the villagers’ newly forming nonviolent resistance campaign as well.
The camera often follows little Gibreel in the village and out through the checkpoint to the family’s olive groves, as he learns what life looks like under occupation. “Kids learn many things by themselves,” Burnat remarked in an interview.
In the course of Gibreel’s first five years of life, Burnat lost five cameras to tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and attacks by angry settlers. The film marks off the progression of the growing demonstrations with both the history of each camera and the milestones in Gibreel’s young life.
“I filmed to protect myself and to be a witness,” Burnat says. “My camera is a very strong witness.”
After he had collected hundreds of hours of footage, Burnat asked his friend, Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, to collaborate with him on the film. Davidi had spent several months living in Bil’in covering the demonstrations when they began in 2005. He described the experience in an interview with HuffPost Live. As he lived with the villagers, he learned “how occupation penetrates your life, your childhood, how much occupation penetrates every part of your soul. You lose control of your life. You can’t plan your life. When you set a goal, the occupation takes you by surprise.”
The question of impartiality
Davidi said that in making the film, his role was to “empower Emad’s voice,” rather than to be a representative of Israeli society. Indiewire reviewer Jacob Combs writes:
“Davidi’s conscious decision to focus the film only on Burnat’s experience and elide his own identity as an Israeli allows '5 Broken Cameras' to have the impact that Burnat’s footage deserves, and simultaneously makes it a work that is less journalistic and yet far more moving. '5 Broken Cameras' is not a balanced or an impartial film, and that’s part of the point: it allows Burnat to tell his story, to develop his perspective, both through his footage and through a continuous stream of thoughtful and at times elegiac narration, freed from the expectation that both sides must have a chance to make their case.”
Jared Young, in a letter to Burnat at the Dear Cast and Crew website, turns the notion of impartiality around and says that the camera’s view of events is “true impartiality:”
“In many of these moments, the camera is up close to the action; mere feet away (inches, in some cases), and captures an intensity of emotion that news cameras rarely do. What shows through, from this intimate vantage, is true impartiality, not merely the illusion of it: nowhere is this more evident than in the defeated, almost apologetic way that an Israeli soldier reads his eviction orders when you and your family are ordered to vacate your home in the middle of the night. Often you somehow manage to find a perch behind Israeli forces, and shoot from their point-of-view as they fire tear gas and rubber bullets into the fleeing crowd. This is no impartial piece of journalism (nor is it meant to be) but we get a sense – in camera perspective, at least – of what it’s like on the other side of the fence.”
Burnat describes his film as a “Palestinian documentary from the heart, the mind, and the soul.” He wants the film’s message to “give people all over the world something new about Palestinian life.” The film is “related to the place, the real thing, the true thing,” Burnat insists.
Combs makes the point that the film is about a “very specific place, a very specific time, and very specific community of people. And through this relatively narrow perspective the broader truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict is revealed.”
Among the five nominees for best documentary feature, both "5 Broken Cameras" and "The Gatekeepers" are films that cast Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in a critical light. Guy Davidi said industry insiders had warned him that “pressure was being exerted on the Academy” to stop the two films from winning the award. “Many people in Hollywood are working very hard to make sure that neither film wins,” he said. “From Israel’s point of view, an Oscar would be a public relations disaster and mean more people get to see our films.”
Asked about the film’s Oscar chances, Moore, who is a governor in the Academy’s documentary branch, said that with all 6,000 members of the Academy voting the race was “too close to call.” In Moore’s personal assessment:
“This is not only one of the best docs of the year; it’s one of the best movies. It’s a powerful film, co-directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli. It’s the first Palestinian film to be nominated for Best Documentary. That makes it an historic moment for the Academy and for movie lovers everywhere. For that alone, [Burnat] should have received roses and an official welcome at LAX, not the detention room.”
When Burnat was asked if he had any hope that the occupation would end in his children’s lifetime, he answered: “If you lose hope, you lose your life.” His voice in the film came from “deeply inside,” he said. “I don’t want for my kids to live like this. I hope we can change the situation in Palestine for my kids. We ask for peace and freedom, for my kids to live in peace and freedom.”
I’m looking forward to watching the Oscars Sunday evening (Feb. 24). I hope I’ll catch a glimpse of Gibreel in the audience. His young life unfolding in the film deeply moved me. As a parent, I was drawn in by Emad and Soraya’s hopes for their children. Whatever choice the envelope holds, I hope they and their fellow villagers back home have a marvelous celebration.