In the stirring autobiographical documentary "5 Broken Cameras," Palestinian farm worker Emad Burnat's deeply personal stories quickly become intensely political, providing a uniquely engaging window into the long-lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A self-taught video camera operator, he inadvertently stumbles into a new avocation as a resident documentarian in his West Bank village of Bil'in by happening to be in the right place at the right time — or not, depending on one's perspective. In any case, the resulting film serves as an impressive work of art, personal visual essay and historical record.
Burnat's filmmaking career started after his fourth son was born in 2005. He procured a video camera intending to record the development of his boy and other family affairs, just like many other fathers. Coincidentally in that year, the Israeli government started to seize Palestinian-owned land around Bil'in to build new settlements for Israeli settlers and to construct the controversial West Bank Barrier to divide the newcomers from the preexisting resident Palestinians. The reduction in farmland caused Burnat and his colleagues to lose work, which contributed to his decision to join fellow villagers, left-leaning Israelis, and sympathetic foreigners in nonviolent protests against the settlements and separation wall.
Burnat documented this campaign of civil disobedience — and the ensuing harsh Israeli crackdown. Armed with his camera, he captured in dramatic detail what went down when the villagers' passive resistance was met with everyday arrests (including himself and all four of his brothers), night raids and violent attacks with beatings, tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and lethal "real" bullets.
The provocative title "5 Broken Cameras" refers to Burnat's dogged perseverance in continuing to capture on video his life and struggles between 2005 and 2010. Even when one camera after another is damaged in skirmishes with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and/or Israeli settlers, more than once by a gunshot that would have otherwise hit him, he finds some way to buy, borrow or be gifted another camera (sometimes by Israeli supporters).
"When I film, I feel like the camera protects me, but that's an illusion," says Burnat, the film's insightful narrator. Indeed, though Burnat escapes at least two bullets blocked by the camera, he does suffer an arrest and serious injuries.
After the fifth camera was broken, Burnat teamed up with Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who lived in Bil'in in 2005 while working on the documentary "Interrupted Streams," regarding West Bank water and power. Davidi and Veronique Lagoarde-Segot expertly edited Burnat's 500 hours of footage into an elegant, elegiac final cut.
5 Broken Cameras
(Arabic, Hebrew and English with subtitles; 90 min.)
Landmark's E Street Cinema
Opens Fri., July 13
4.5 out of 5 stars
Austrian writer-director Michael Glawogger's vivid documentary "Whores' Glory" is the final chapter of his enlightening trilogy on globalization, preceded by "Megacities" and "Workingman's Death." At the 2011 Venice Film Festival, "Whores' Glory" garnered the Orizzonti Special Jury Prize for its no-holds-barred approach. Glawogger tells it like it is, not hesitating to reveal ugly details about the global sex trade driven by desperate poverty — and the greed of underworld characters, including organized crime networks.
The film's main tales are those of everyday women working as prostitutes with whom the filmmaker has very close contact. Glawogger paid for that level of access, a questionable practice by traditional documentary ethical standards, but some argue it's more acceptable when involving impoverished subjects. Perhaps fittingly, Glawogger declares in the film notes, "Prostitution is not to be condemned or defended. Prostitution simply is. It is like war. War is."
The film doesn't judge its subjects, who frequently make difficult decisions to survive. Instead, Glawogger's script objectively depicts the profound influences across diverse cultures of economics, politics, sociology, faith and sexuality on modern human existence, affecting both males and females in varying ways.
Announcing itself as a "cinematic triptych on prostitution," the film relates the stories of working girls in three different locales. In Bangkok, Thailand, the world's oldest profession seems very accepted. Sex workers start their day by praying at a Buddhist temple — for abundance, not forgiveness — before literally punching the clock like factory workers at the Fish Tank brothel. After being plastered with makeup, they pose like models — or mannequins — in a lighted glass box where customers can pick what they want and pay with credit cards. Still, a client insists, "We are the commodity."
Guilt is more prevalent in Faridpur, Bangladesh, where the red light district is called "The City of Joy." For example, one prostitute declines to conduct oral sex with the same mouth she uses to pray to Allah. However, Islam does not deter many families from selling their daughters or prevent brothels from operating as family-run businesses. In Reynosa, Mexico, a border town across from McAllen, Texas, prostitution is relegated to a special zone in no man's land where hookers are often outlaws and/or crack addicts. Facing the specter of Catholic guilt ingrained into Mexican society, fused locally with pagan rituals, the ladies of the night pray for an easy demise to a goddess called Lady Death.
(English, German, French, Thai, Japanese, Spanish and Bengali with subtitles; 119 min.)
Landmark's E Street Cinema
Opens Fri., July 6
4 out of 5 stars
The post-Hurricane Katrina fairytale "Beasts of the Southern Wild," American director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin's debut feature film, captivated audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. The engrossing fantasy drama is such a completely cinematic experience that it's hard to believe Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar adapted the screenplay from Alibar's play "Juicy and Delicious." The distinctive script clearly benefited from the three years it was workshopped in the Sundance Institute's laboratory program.
Also first-rate is its organic body of technical work — cinematography, special effects, editing, music, etc. Unlike the often grainy pictures of many American indies set in commonplace and familiar-looking locales, director of photography Ben Richardson's exquisite images (for which he won the Cinematography Award at Sundance) bring to life one of the most exotic — and impoverished — settings in the United States.
"The Bathtub," comprised of New Orleans wards lying at low elevations, is separated by the rest of the city by a unstable levy that comes with an undercurrent of danger. The isolation of the often-ignored bayou neighborhood develops a strong, even stubborn, sense of independence in its proud outcast residents who keep up their spirits with raucous partying.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" grips the viewer's imagination through the eyes of its optimistic 6-year-old African American heroine, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). She uniquely resides in a separate makeshift, stilt-lifted structure from that of her nearby father Wink (Dwight Henry), who said her mother simply "swam away," so she's effectively equally raised by her neighbors. Her father loves her, but he's frequently absent — and often drunk, mad, and violent when he's around.
Yet she proclaims that they live in "the prettiest place on Earth," a belief supported by the beautiful scenes of nature on both land and water. But her idyllic existence is threatened when her father grows gravely ill and a flood mandates the neighborhood's eviction by the outside authorities, forcing her to bravely face the world's harsh realities head on.
Zeitlin coaxes the solid ensemble cast of nonprofessional actors into delivering naturalistic performances, which add greatly to the film's overwhelming sense of verisimilitude depicting the local population and language. Astoundingly assured Quvenzhané Wallis gives the audience her all in nearly every scene throughout the film, leading to one of the most memorable child portrayals in the recent history of cinema. The final result is pretty much everything an independent film could hope to be but seldom is.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
(English; 93 min.)
AFI Silver Theatre
Landmark's E Street Cinema
Opens Fri., July 6
4.5 out of 5 stars
Freer Gallery of Art
The Freer's annual Hong Kong Film Festival runs June 29 to Aug. 19. To ensure admittance, please come early to the ever-popular series, which kicks off with Ann Hui's "A Simpler Life" (Fri., June 29, 7 p.m.; Sun., July 1, 2 p.m.). "Suffused with the gentle, unforced humanity viewers have come to expect from Hong Kong helmer Ann Hui, 'A Simple Life' is a tender ode to the elderly, their caregivers and the mutual generosity of spirit that makes their limited time together worthwhile," wrote Justin Chang in Variety.
The Indian classic movie "Alms of the Blind Horse" (Sat., July 14, 2 p.m.) earned a triple crown of distinctions: the initial Punjabi feature film to break through to the international festival circuit, director Gurvinder Singh's feature debut, and the final film from the deceased legend Mani Kaul, who wore the title of creative producer.
(202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theatre
The returning program "Totally Awesome 6: Great Films of the 1980s" (June 29-Sept. 19) opens with "Explorers," "Withnail and I" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." The series "Spy Cinema" (June 29-Sept. 19) starts with "North by Northwest," "Mata Hari" and "Dishonored." The "Jean Harlow Retrospective" (June 30-Aug. 2) showcases the talented American actress, beginning with "Red Dust" and "Bombshell."
(301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer of The Washington Diplomat.