Documentary movies have very little popular appeal, and this is not just in India, but the world over. Here in India, the medium suffers from a bad reputation created many decades ago by badly produced Films Division documentaries, which invariably ran before the main movies, a feature of course, were screened in theatres.
But we have come a long way since those days of boring documentation on screen. Today, some brilliant documentaries are being shot. And festivals of documentaries have been trying to tell us this.
The International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, whose sixth edition got off to an impressive start on June 7 with a Palestine-Israel work, Five Broken Cameras, is a small but effective step to wean people away from a mindset that is allergic to documentaries. This cannot be more true in a country like India, as Mike Pandey, the Festival’s chief guest and renowned environmentalist/documentary moviemaker, said, where despite hundreds of television channels, not one is dedicated to the medium. So we have no TV channel, no theatre to exhibit some wonderful non-fiction work that is being done within India and outside.
Five Broken Cameras, the first ever Palestinian work to have been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, illustrates the power of the medium to evoke a debate and act as a platform for information.
The movie, helmed by Palestine’s Emad Burnat and Israel’s Guy Davidi, is a gripping piece of work on the West Asia conflict. It chronicles the frustration and sorrow of Palestinians who have to constantly battle Israeli gunfire and encroachments on the West Bank.
Burnat narrates his personal story- of life in a small village which lives by cultivating olives – with the help of his five cameras, each one broken by Israeli teargas shells or bullets. Indeed, his cameras have at least on two occasions saved his life by acting as a shield between him and the flying piece of fire.
Burnat, a farmer himself, began recording the events around him in his village of Bilin when he got his first camera in 2005, which coincided with the birth of his youngest son, Gibreel. That year, the villagers, angry over the security fence built by the Israeli army adjacent to their habitation and olive fields, began organising weekly protests, attended by Left-wing Israelis and sympathisers from other countries. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the barrier rerouted, and four years later, villager access to some of the land was restored.
Burnat’s five cameras, which suffered fatal hits during this Palestine-Israel often eyeball to eyeball confrontation, may not have been the only ones to record all these. But his footage accompanied by his own commentary is touching and intimate.
Davidi, a movie director, helped Burnat to edit and compress images captured over five years into a tight documentary. The two have been careful not to let go some great moments, such as the encounters between the demonstrators and Israeli soldiers that often led to ugly situations. Injuries and deaths.
Interestingly, Burnat’s camera also freezes instants which conveyed that the soldiers were, above all, human, and that they could understand the tragic plight of a people without a nation.
In the final analyses, as the New York Times review said: ”This is not to say that the political crisis that unites and separates them is likely to be resolved any time soon, but rather that, even in the midst of that crisis, it is more than just politics that needs to be seen and understood”. Five Broken Cameras does precisely that by taking us far beyond politics and statecraft, gently reminding us, at the same time, about the immense power of a documentary to touch us.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 6th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala)