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Palestinian farmer, activist, filmmaker — and Oscar nominee

Q&A

Emad Burnat talks about how he progressed from filming his newborn to teaming with an Israeli to create '5 Broken Cameras,' a documentary about his village's fight against Israeli occupation.

February 02, 2013|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • West Bank farmer turned filmmaker Emad Burnat, 41, near the village of Bilin in the West Bank. His movie "5 Broken Cameras" is nominated for an Oscar in the documentaries category.
West Bank farmer turned filmmaker Emad Burnat, 41, near the village of Bilin… (Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles…)

BILIN, West Bank — Like many Palestinians, West Bank farmer Emad Burnat punctuates his life story with events from the Israeli occupation of his village.

His first son was born amid the optimism that followed the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and another came just as the 2000 Palestinian uprising erupted.

His youngest, Gibreel, was born the same week that Israel began constructing a separation barrier through his hometown of Bilin. That's when Burnat got his first camera, initially to capture his newborn, but later to document his village's fight against the Israeli military and nearby settlers.

It was the first of five cameras he would use, all destroyed during filming by bullets, tear-gas canisters or angry settlers.

With the help of Israeli activist and filmmaker Guy Davidi, Burnat turned the footage into "5 Broken Cameras," a deeply personal glimpse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nominated for an Oscar in the documentary feature category. The Oscars will be awarded Feb. 24.

Overlooking the snaking concrete barrier that separates Bilin from nearby Jewish settlements, Burnat, 41, spoke with The Times about the challenges in making the film, working with an Israeli to finish it and balancing roles as filmmaker and activist.

There's been some recent controversy around calling this an "Israeli" film since it was co-directed by an Israeli and got some Israeli funding. Is it Israeli or Palestinian?

This came from my mind, my heart and my soul. It's a Palestinian film, and that was the idea from the beginning. The collaboration between me and Guy is not between two states. It's between two human beings because I knew him as a friend. It was never supposed to be about making an Israeli-Palestinian film or about Israeli-Palestinian collaboration.

Why did you turn to an Israeli to help shape and complete the film? Were there trust issues that arose or a backlash from Palestinians?

I had 90% of the footage when I proposed Guy join me. What was missing was the funding and the editing. It could have come from a German or a Palestinian or anyone. But I trusted Guy. He was someone who came to support us in the village in the demonstrations against the wall and the settlements. I knew how he thought about Palestinian rights and the occupation. He was a strong supporter. ... But after the Oscar nomination, the Israeli media started calling it an Israeli film because of Guy's role. And that has brought some pressure on me from some Palestinian politicians and journalists. Some people didn't respect the film because of that.

Did you set out to make such a personal film?

I started documenting the village's story. The daily life. And also some of my personal daily life, like my son growing up. The idea was always to make a personal film because many people were making films about the same subject, but most were by outsiders. So in 2005 a friend suggested making the film about my friends, my family and my son. At first I didn't want to include footage of myself. I didn't want people to say, "Oh, he's making a film about himself." But Guy said that was normal and encouraged me to make it more about myself.

You narrate the footage in very personal terms, but the script was something Guy wrote. Was that strange?

He knows about words and is a good writer. But the narrative came from inside me, after discussions with me. If you didn't live here, you couldn't understand those feelings. I never really cared about who got credit. My goal was to finish the film and spread the word.

Was there any friction in working with Guy? Any arguments about the film's message?

I'd by lying if I said there was never any problem, but that happens even between brothers. After the film became famous, we decided to distribute it and there were some problems over that. To me the main purpose was to show the footage as much as possible to as many people [as possible]. So I'm always fighting for free screenings. But the business partners are sometimes focusing more on business and money.

Do Palestinians care about the Oscars?

No, they don't care. Sometimes I would see them on TV, but as a child we didn't have a TV. My wife grew up in Brazil, and she followed them every year. She's excited about going to the ceremony. She has a dress. My son Gibreel will go with us.

If you win, what will you say to the millions of people watching worldwide?

I have to prepare something. It would be a very special moment to say something about the Palestinian issue. It would be the first Palestinian to win an Oscar. So it would be a chance to inform people around the world about our situation, and give Palestinians some hope.

Will you do another film?

I'm thinking about another project, but I have to find a good story to tell. I'm so busy with the current film that I don't have a clear mind. And I think after the Oscars it will probably be even busier.

Do you see yourself now as a filmmaker?

To me it's not just about making films. I put my life at risk. I was shot at. I was arrested twice. I was seriously injured in a car accident. But that was not to make a film or to make money. The film was a way to reach my goal, and that is to tell people the truth about our lives, to tell the story of Palestine.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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