Saverio Costanzo’s film Private tells the story of a Palestinian family whose home is occupied by Israeli soldiers. Their deepest domestic spaces are taken over and violated, and the family is told they can’t leave their living room without permission from the troops. Along with this penetrative metaphor, a visual metaphor runs throughout the film: that of a greenhouse. Mohammed’s son Yousef says he will kill the Israeli soldiers if they dare destroy the family’s greenhouse. Mohammed retorts, saying that if they do destroy the greenhouse, they will simply rebuild, over and over again, until the soldiers are exhausted. This symbol of Palestinian resistance grounds a larger concept of relentless “re-construction” illustrated in Annemarie Jacir’s Like Twenty Impossibles and Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras. Martijn van Gils and Malaka Mohammed Shwaikh establish the recurring healing and trauma depicted in Palestinian cinema as a direct thematic throughline to the “healing” metaphor of the greenhouse. However, I would like to drill deeper into the formal and aesthetic decisions that emphasize a theme of re-construction, and also argue that these techniques differ drastically from what Palestinian cinema was shortly after the 1948 Nakba. Both 5 Broken Cameras and Like Twenty Impossibles deploy fractured aesthetics to communicate functional “breakages” in the filmmaking process itself, reflecting the violence of occupation and the resistance to such provocative methods. These visual storytelling methods also set these films apart from early Palestinian documentaries, and illustrate how documentary form itself could substantiate the resistance politics of Palestinian activism.

It is important, then, to outline a brief history of Palestinian documentary cinema. Anastasia Valassapolous writes of a contradiction that faced the Palestinian Liberation Organization: they wanted the Palestinian cause to be unmarred by foreign influence, but also sought international support. Valassapolous writes that “one of the most effective ways for the Palestinian resistance to bridge this contradiction was to insert itself onto the global political stage through the marketing of Arab intellectualism, by which I mean an ability to participate and influence current ideologies and debates in the cultural arena” (149). The pro-Palestinian cinema at the time focused on the construction of a Palestinian identity, and characterizations of legitimate guerrilla tactics against occupation forces. The film Declaration of World War, a co-production between the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (the PFLP) and the Japanese Red Army (JRA), was a picture that embodied all of these themes. There was a concerted effort to produce English and French subtitles for international distribution, and the anti-imperialist critiques usually lobbied by the PFLP and JRA were softened in the film, in order to maximize its capacity to rally foreign support (Valassopoulos 151-152). Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Leila Khaled’s appearance in Declaration of World War depicts the space in which she lives: a bare room with just a bed and a gun. The final shots of the film depict Palestinian revolutionaries reading Mao, and shots of guns and books, as a JRA member speaks of the international solidarity between the Red Army and Palestinians. The cultural notions of Palestinian resistance, and the foreign support needed to fight back, are crystallized in these scenes.

What we see in Like Twenty Impossibles, directed by Annemarie Jacir, does not seem to be a film about “resistance” at all, then. Compared to the provocative imagery of Declaration of World War, the only provocations we see are from the Israeli soldiers pointing their guns at the camera and crew. As opposed to the strong radical figure of Leila Khaled, we see a relatively confused film crew trying to navigate the logic of the IDF, as they take an ill-fated shortcut into Jerusalem. It would be difficult to classify the film as “resistance,” when the notions of Palestinian resistance cinema had been codified in the 60s and 70s with radical imagery. However, to return to Private’s greenhouse metaphor, we see the act of re-building in every facet of the film. Overexposure flashes and dirty film leader is a constant throughout the film, suggesting “mistakes” in the cinematography, but also an undying commitment to capturing every second of a fraught encounter between the Palestinian film crew and Israeli checkpoint patrol. In one tense sequence, the performer Rami is in danger of detainment, as one of the troops points to the camera and demands they stop filming. This encounter is followed by white flashes in the film stock, skipped frames, and dirtied-up artifacts. But we promptly return to Rami and Annemarie, speaking frankly about Rami’s fears of beatings by the Israeli forces. The irony at the end of the film, where the crew retreats and is unable to make the project they set out to make, is apparent when we realize that this indeed was the project: shooting a fraught encounter that prevented the production of their “actual” film. Here, then, we see a “greenhouse” of a film being brought down, but recreated on its own terms.

5 Broken Cameras is a documentary shot by Emad Burnat and co-directed by Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. Similarities between this work and early Palestinian documentary are abound here, complete with actionable content regarding resistance techniques. However, a few things become apparent. One, the imagery of Palestinian resistance is not focused on militance or political violence. Instead, the Palestinians protest entirely peacefully, and the shocking violence comes entirely from Israeli forces, as they shoot and arrest innocent Palestinians with zero provocation. Two, much as in Like Twenty Impossibles, the camera plays a central role in this portrait of anti-occupation. This time, however, it’s a shield.

“When I film, I feel like my camera protects me. But it is an illusion.” Israeli soldiers knock on Burnat’s front door. Burnat says “I take my camera to protect me.” The soldiers, predictably, tell him he’s in violation of a vague “military zone order” and insists he put his camera away. Burnat is steadfast, and maintains the camera on the soldiers. The leading troop points his flashlight at the lens: an attempt at obscuring the image. The violence of the state collides with the self-defense mechanisms of the camera. Far from the observant qualities of the early Palestinian documentary, we now see the camera as an active shield in the anti-occupation struggle. Much as in Like Twenty Impossibles, aggression is pointed not just towards the crew, but the camera itself. The camera is qualified as a weapon by Zionist forces. We see a British news videographer’s camera shot by an Israeli sniper. “I’m lucky it wasn’t me this time,” says Burnat. His unwillingness to stop filming is a hallmark of this film, and certainly one of the reasons the images captured are so unique. Even Burnat’s wife requests he stop filming, to which Burnat responds in voiceover, “I have to keep filming.” Relentless, white-knuckled resistance in the face of pure state terror. Shortly after this encounter, Burnat’s camera gets shot out by a bullet that gets lodged into the camera body itself. Burnat remarks that the camera “may have saved [his] life.” The defensive properties of filming no longer seem like such an illusion.

Every time each camera breaks, we linger on the digital artifacting or blank video that results. Each “death” of the camera comes about due to violent aggression from the Israelis. However, each “birth” of the new camera emphasizes the stamina of this project and of Burnat. Life-affirming footage of Burnat’s family, especially the growth of his young son Gibreel, anchors the film even in its most violent moments. We can think of the cameras themselves here as “greenhouses,” unable to be fully destroyed by occupation forces.

In a shocking shot, one of the Israeli soldiers points a rifle at a cuffed Palestinian man. He shoots the man in the leg point-blank, and Burnat’s camera shakes uncontrollably until it focuses back on the fallen protester. A momentary chaotic handling of the shot, without any cuts, also illustrates the “re-building” nature of this film. In every attempt to destroy the spirit, the camera returns, and the film chugs along. Jane M. Gaines, in her piece “Political Mimesis,” writes: “there is a going beyond of the mimetic powers of the body to engage the projective powers of mimetic technologies, but also a utilization of the machines of repetition, which have the capacity to throw up their imitations again and again and again… the documentary film that uses realism for political ends has a special power over the world of which it is a copy because it derives its power from the same world” (95). Gaines, in her conception of political mimesis regarding cinema, emphasizes the importance of living in the world as it exists as being the actual catalyst for events such as the Rodney King riots, as opposed to the illusory conception that it was the footage of Rodney King’s beating that triggered the riots. In the same vein, it is the world in which Israeli forces descend on Palestinian land and unleash wanton violence that reproduces bodily action in the viewer, and not the footage of atrocities. We as an audience are horrified not by the loss of Burnat’s cameras, but by the circumstances of brutality that the Israeli military and its civilian supporters would fervently destroy something as unassuming as a video camera. This “overreaction” to the filming, so deftly captured by Burnat, is one of the most direct ways the film questions the violence and legitimacy of the state. As Palestinian films (that is to say, Palestinian cinema objects ABOUT anti-occupation struggles) largely act as “tools of witnessing” and “[assertions of] the visibility of Palestinian through aesthetic representations of non-violent forms of resistance, which may trigger a sympathetic international response,” acknowledging the mimetic effects of these films produces an understanding of their larger intentions.

It is important to note that there are criticisms that could be levied against these two films that illustrate a “new form” of Palestinian documentary. The militarism and radical action depicted in early Palestinian cinema is largely absent, in favor of a more introspective human drama that webs out from the affects of occupation and colonization. This can be critiqued as a loss of militant spirit within Palestinian culture and activism in the face of an Israeli chokehold. However, one possibility that should be considered is the idea that form itself could oppose a gargantuan state. For instance, with Like Twenty Impossibles, Jacir employs a “fake documentary” style (similarly to Private) that re-appropriates documentary aesthetics to illustrate suffocating oppression: “as fiction films, with all the possibilities that fiction’s control and imagination can achieve, fake documentaries are also (artificially) anchored to the material world, with all the political and emotional possibilities that the body and the body politic can inspire” (Juhasz 2). Like Twenty Impossibles, while operating in the realm of fiction, does not seek to capture a heightened reality (a la Errol Morris). What we can see is a platonic ideal of this “anchoring” to the material world, with events that could so wholly transpire in the current Palestinian crisis that this fictional footage could exist in the same realm as spontaneous “real” captured encounters. As mentioned before, this fake documentary style emphasizes the “breaks” within the sound and footage to reflect the nature of Palestinian existence and resistance in the current situation, but the form also points to an arrangement of power that radically opposes the hegemonic characterization of occupation as a “conflict” or “two-sided war” (implying an equal playing field in regards to violence and cultural oppression). As Juhasz writes further: “fake documentaries imply, sometimes state, and often critique the crucial relations between documentary and the textual and actual authority it assumes, reflects, and constructs. This send up may be in the service of a good laugh at authority, but it as often serves as a serious critique of power” (2). We can see this relationship at work in a fraught yet humorous encounter between a checkpoint unit and the filmmakers. An Israeli soldier asks Annemarie where she is from, to which she responds “Palestine.” He remarks she has a U.S. passport, and she explains she lived in New York. “Actually, I was born in Miami!” he remarks excitedly. This encounter, spurred by questions about what the filmmakers are aiming to shoot, is followed by another soldier taking Annemarie aside and saying to her: “if you’re so unhappy here, go home.” When she responds that she is home, he holds up her passport, “why do you need this then?” It follows the line of questioning on display throughout the film, an insane circular logic aimed to codify the power and legitimacy of the Israeli state at every turn. The sound is barely audible, and the cinematographer is clearly struggling to maintain focus and balance, returning to the theme of productive “rebuilding” within the cinema form. The questioning ends with the soldiers pointing at the camera, and yelling for the filming to stop yet again, ascribing a power to the production itself.

The first-person filmmaking style of 5 Broken Cameras is also a powerful device that formally opposes the Israeli state’s logic. When breaking down the common notions of first-person cinema, Alisa Lebow writes: “the ‘I’ is always social, always already in relation, and when it speaks, as these filmmakers do, in the first person, it may appear to be in the first person singular ‘I’ but ontologically speaking, it is always in effect, the first person plural ’we’. The grammatical reference reminds us that language itself, though spoken by an individual, is never entirely our own invention, nor anyone else’s. Despite the fact that we believe it to express our individuality, it nonetheless also expresses our commonality, our plurality, our interrelatedness with a group, a mass, a sociality, if not a society (Lebow 3).” Burnat’s narration and the structure of 5 Broken Cameras elucidates this, as we follow Burnat’s personal life with his family (specifically following the birth and growth of his son) along with the resistance demonstrations he takes part in. This development of an already-established community and family on film specifically plays to the strengths of first-person cinema: “this is as true about the expression of individuality and subjectivity in first person films as it is in language itself… they are quite the opposite, in most cases, of the singular ‘I’, and can even be understood to be a ‘cinema of we’, rather than a ‘cinema of me’” (3). As Israel attempts to sow separation and deny the status of the Palestinian community, Burnat’s first-person filmmaking reaffirms these concepts.

The reconstructive aesthetics on display here illustrate a new type of image resistance to the Israelis that was not previously seen in the more militant Palestinian cinema. However, there is also the question of why these filmmakers so depart from cultural norms, when Palestinian literature and cinema to this day largely tend towards formal “smoothness” and unbroken continuities to establish a continuous identity: “the structure of the sentences in ‘Men in the Sun’ and the structure of the characters’ consciousness link these distances and bridge them. Consequently, a continuity and fluidity between areas is created, similar to the fluidity formed by the camera in Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee, where the eye of the camera moves from the village to the olive groves and from the olive groves far from the horizon” (Gertz 84-85). The discontinuities of Jacir and Burnat’s films are deployed in a radically disparate way than Khleifi and novelist Gassan Kanafani’s work that firmly establishes the continuity of both the people’s history and the land’s history. But the way Jacir and Burnat’s films operate heavily in discontinuities already plants these histories as something to protect, and the “breaking” and “rebuilding,” although a complete formal departure from the early Palestinian documentary and the norms of Palestinian media aesthetics, illustrate the struggles of existence when the brutalities of the Zionist project descend on the artist. When such forces try to tear a thing apart, piecing it back together can be an act of defense, criticism, and affirmation.

Gaines, Jane, “Political Mimesis.” Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999 (84-102).
Gertz, Nurith, and George Khleifi. Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory. Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2008.
Juhasz, Alexandra, and Jesse Lerner. F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Lebow, Alisa. The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First-Person Documentary Film, Columbia University Press, London, 2012.
Valassopoulos, Anastasia. “The International Palestinian Resistance: Documentary and Revolt.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 50, no. 2, 2014, pp. 148–162., doi:10.1080/17449855.2014.883172.
Van Gils, Martijn, and Malaka Mohammed Shwaikh. “Fighting without Weapons: Palestinian Documentary Films and Acts of Resistance.” Asian Affairs, vol. 47, no. 3, 2016, pp. 443–464., doi:10.1080/03068374.2016.1225903.