In this pre-election period, I found myself wondering, in a dark little theater in Tel Aviv, about the accuracy of a statement I recently read by a Polish [sic] monk named Thomas Merton. Merton wrote than when a “myth becomes a daydream, it is judged. … To cling to it when it has lost its creative function is to condemn oneself to mental illness.” I watched the new documentary film “5 Broken Cameras,” and I felt disturbed, like a father watching a recording of police interrogating his son, who harmed a young girl. The film documents seven years in a small village called Bil’in, which is up against Israeli bulldozers erecting an ultra-Orthodox city on its land.
What I saw scared me and caused me shame, as an Israeli who loves his country, because these actions of occupation and expropriation, uprooting of olive trees and land theft — are our actions, our stupidity. Our soldiers, even our ultra-Orthodox settlers. For more than an hour, the viewer watches how a myth as old as the redemption of land is distorted and turned into a mental illness called “real estate-occupation.” Through the lenses of five cameras, shattered from gunfire over the course of those years, the occupation looks like a cruel parody of Zionism.
You can deny and repress, as many of us do. The occupation, like the deportation (of the Sudanese, for example, to their deaths), like the death by fire of Moshe Silman, who was persecuted by the National Insurance Institute — is effectively repressed in the country of the survivors who long to forget. In the West Bank, a tall wall was erected. Until the next Intifada, there are no Palestinians — only settlers who live there, pray to God, spray paint mosques and build multi-story buildings on the land of a 70-year-old peasant.
A young filmmaker named Guy Davidi filmed, alongside a photographer from the village named Emad Burnat, hundreds of hours of demonstrations and clashes that were edited to make a very human film, complex and without victimization, that tells the story of daily life in the small and ancient village whose lands are being increasingly swallowed up by an ultra-Orthodox real estate monster, fueled by interests and rabbis. Their David is up against our Goliath, but with no biblical miracle. The roles have reversed.
In the heart of the drama is a man from Bil’in called “Phil” [elephant], due to his size. He has no father, he is tall and handsome, a village soccer player popular with the children. If he had appeared as a participant on “Big Brother,” he would have captured hearts, made a clean sweep, won a million, and appeared as an interviewer on the morning show of a commercial television station. Phil demonstrates without a rock in his hand [to throw], he hates violence, and he often speaks to soldiers. To plead. To appease. He doesn’t rest for one moment. He is a nice and optimistic man. Is it weird for you to read such words about a Palestinian? Disconcerting? At some point, Phil is killed, live on camera, from a gas canister fired point blank.
Facing the village and Phil and the cameras, are the soldiers. Our children. Not an evil, impermeable force, but a crew extensively armed, often embarrassed, sometimes violent — largely due to confusion, anxiety, and contradicting commands. Physically close to the demonstrators. As filming progresses, the irreversible monstrosity of the occupation, along with our flight toward a binational state, are revealed to the viewer.
The viewer who understands the cycles of history and its deceptive ways watches and wonders whether one day, let’s say in 2032, a child from among the children in the film, perhaps little Jibril, the son of the photographer whose filming accompanies his birth and his upbringing, will be released from prison after the fifth intifada, and will become the historic Palestinian Nelson Mandela, who offers a solution of cohabitation, albeit one very different from that planned by the founders. Because these are not just the fields of Bil’in, this is the entire Jewish-democratic state that is disappearing under a string of bulldozers, which erect, under the cover of the soldiers, multi-story buildings for families of ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers. Have we become confused?
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