The 2013 Oscars, scheduled for February 24, are right around the corner. Contenders like ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Les Miserables’ have already been watched, discussed and popularised. The lesser known nominees, however, are just as worthy of viewing and praising. In particular, behind the glitz and glamour of A-list celebrities receiving accolades are the non-celebrity protagonists of real life narratives: Those whose stories are told through documentaries. Over the next few weeks, until the Oscars, we have a look at the five nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category.
In the tiny village of Bilin in the Palestinian West Bank, one man buys a camera to document the birth of his son. The rest, as they say, is history.
One of the reasons the movie is so poignant is watching some of the most harrowing scenes of the Arab-Israeli conflict not the way they’re presented in the media, or in movies, but rather as personalised, ‘amateur’ home video. It makes no bones about being highly autobiographical, political and activist in nature – and that calm acceptance that neutrality is sometimes impossible is a message the movie conveys not just emotively, but also artistically.
Emad, a peasant in Bilin, buys his first camera when his youngest child, Gibreel is born. From there however, the documentary’s narrative swims in an overwhelming tide of young, arrogant Israeli soldiers, a window into one small village’s non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation, a family torn apart and atrocities rarely caught on camera or displayed on television.
Emad’s chronicle on the trials and tribulations of his friends and family as Israel builds a ‘security fence’ through their land, the only source of their livelihood, spans five years. His cameras have short life spans – much like the protagonists of the real-life drama, they face the ire of soldiers unwilling for the world to see what war makes people capable of.
Trailer for 5 broken cameras:
As the villagers continue to protest every Friday to get their olive trees back, Gibreel, Emad’s youngest son, starts becoming attuned to the violence around him. The first two words he learns are ‘wall’, and ‘army’.
Enter Phil and Adeeb, Emad’s friends who couldn’t be better protagonists – one, a loveable giant adored by the village children, the other, fearless Adeeb, who has no qualms about standing inches from the face of hostile soldiers, willing to die for his home but never willing to pick up a gun.
Slowly, the film transforms from an intimate insight into the lives of the Bilin residents to a disturbing, but true, narrative with a purpose. Emad comes out from behind the camera, after being placed under house arrest. He talks to his wife, who becomes increasingly frustrated at his activism. He plays with his son, whose innocence provides a touching contrast to the senseless violence the villagers face almost daily.
Some scenes stand out in particular, thrusting the viewer into an overwhelming sense of frustration – a sign that the movie’s ability to induce empathy is astounding. As young children get arrested in the middle of the night and fathers desperately cling onto military vehicles taking their sons away, one can’t help but feel that even if the movie wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece technically, the raw footage alone would take one’s breath way.
What works most to Emad’s favour is his ability (along with Guy Davidi, an Israeli activist who co-directed the raw footage which eventually became a film) to intertwine his very personal narrative with a wider look at the political chaos in the region.
Without giving too much away, the end leaves the viewer with a strange mix of hopelessness and optimism. The villagers who want their olive trees and livelihood back gain some small victories, but the question that lingers is whether the lives lost and the price paid could make them worthwhile.
Regardless of what side of the conflict one sees eye-to-eye on, this documentary is a must-watch. Its personal quality, combined with its stark depiction of real-life conflict, will test you emotionally while maintaining its role as a work of cinematic art.
Watch this space for the next Oscar nominated Best Documentary Feature this year: Searching for Sugar Man.