IINTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM
NOV 17 TO NOV 27 2011
I attended IDFA and was able to view some 23 films in five
One of the issues highlighted for me at IDFA:
transpose active relations into the life of a film?
There are various ways in which an idea or notion of reality
can be shaped and given substance
in a documentary film.
Among the films that I viewed in Amsterdam one form of
documentary film making in particular caught my attention. Films shot from within a process. This particular way of making a film
attracted positive responses from audiences perhaps because by their nature
these films demand a critical engagement and shape an interaction with the
material that tends to be more passive than active. These films elicit a need to respond to what has been
This particular group of films that interested me took their
form and salient characteristic from being shot (or in the case of 5 Broken
Cameras the significant defining material) by individuals strategically placed
in a dynamic and changing situation.
These were films shot from within an unfolding of relations and made
possible by lightweight cameras and simple but powerful editing systems that
enabled a lot of material to be shot using different systems and simply controlled.
Examples of the films situated within a matrix of relations
were two from the Middle East, one from Iran (This is not a Film by Jafar
Panahi which I will consider separately in another piece of writing) , and one
from Europe, Fredrik Gerrten’s Big
Boys Gone Bananas, a very strong example of a European film that is total
process, embedded in a context that is filmed as it develops and plays out.
The two Middle Eastern films that interested me were located
in Palestine. Five Broken Cameras
(co directed by Palestinian Emad
Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi) and
Marcus Vetter’s Cinema Jenin both articulated a process that was part of
a wider fateful working out of both individual and collective destiny.
Cinema Jenin was directed by Marcus Vetter who as well as
directing played the lead role in the eponymous project of renovating an
abandoned and dilapidated cinema in Jenin. Although credited with one director and one editor, Cinema
Jenin has the feel of a collective project in which individuals such as Ishmael
(a previous subject of Vetter’s work in Jenin) and other political and social
groupings in Jenin, are core to filmic making and unfolding. Film maker Vetter takes on the lead
role in the cinema project and locates himself at the heart of the complex
interplay of the social and political relations in Jenin which shape and mould
the process of both rebuilding the cinema and making the film. As film maker Vetter is committed to
the actual project and plays a key part in the process that engages the
resources and enters into the critical social and political relations that make
a successful outcome possible.
Marcus Vetter is in Jenin.
And that ‘being in’ has the effect of engaging with dynamic relations
that the camera not only captures but affects. There is a sense in which the camera itself becomes a
player. The camera in the continuous action of filming
creates a feedback loop. It becomes not just a point of reference, but also
part of the questioning and decision making processes. Perhaps in itself the camera becomes an
attitude/behaviour modifier at the individual level as an immediate source of
image feedback. The knowledge that everyone is ‘in’ the Jenin movie is a
fateful realisation, which turns the camera into a force that affects
individuals so that different realities attain a certain visibility
particularly in the political domain. During the editing of the film, Julliano one of those
in the process, in the intensely political dialogue which is a defining element
of relations in Jenin is shot dead, murdered outside the cinema. Was this part of the film or an event
that we can bracket outside the film?
I don’t know but I felt that the core questions that unfolded in the
process of filming were central to what was happening in both in Cinema Jenin
and 5 Broken Cameras.
Being in the situation and filming from within a process
creates films that pull on emotive cognitive and intellectual responses of
those within this unfolding. Participants
are confronted by themselves presented as image in film. They are accompanied by a constant
mirror image which crystalises their movement through time. In the recoding of the unfolding of relations
there is no hiding place either from the virtual audience of the self or from
the wider projected world of viewers. The unfolding of relations in the movie
creates situations of a completely different dynamic from the normal artificial
and controlled interview situation typical of most docs, where the interviewees
are easily able to present the facets of issues that suit their purposes. Seeing material from within process,
even allowing for the controlling aspect of editing presents a more
contradictory but more challenging picture for audiences to understand. Audience response indicates that this
is a challenge to which audiences respond very positively.
Burnat’s 5 Broken Cameras, each of which is smashed or
broken during his filming of the Israeli occupation, develop into more than
just tools that record the terrible and unsettling events that he films. His camera, as an invariable
presence recording the Israeli incursion, becomes part of the developing
dialogue within the Palestinian community in Bil’in. The core dialogue in Bil’in and amongst the Palestinians is
about how they can best resist the Israelis and what relations they should have
with sympathetic Israelis.
Burnat’s camera becomes part of the thinking about the situation. His
camera is part of the process of understanding what is happening to the village
and the effects of their response to events. Viewed by the villages Burnat’s footage becomes part of a
feed back loop, feeding into the villagers understanding and evaluation of
their actions as they oppose the Israelis, and effecting modifications and planning about actions they have
taken and will take in the future.
The camera as thought.
Both Jenin and 5 Broken Cameras seem to be part of a
re-evaluating by Palestinians of the means by which the Israelis can be
opposed. Confrontation with the
Israelis by force of arms is not the only means of fighting; in certain
situations such as those in Bil’in it may be counter productive and other
strategies using other tactics may be more effective. With the addition of
filming as a feed back loop, opposition using techniques of civil disobedience
and non violent protest become effective in affirming Palestinian self
belief and in achieving the goal
of forcing Israel to look at itself and even to make concessions. The actuality recorded by Burnat is
shocking; but the film ennobles
the Palestinian cause and strategy of non violence and communicates it not just
to the world wide audience but also to Israelis.
Filming to the extent that it is part of the thought
processes in the Palestinian discourse becomes a conduit for reaching out to
Israelis. Film as part of the way
of thinking about what is happening, can work to legitimise intra-Israeli
resistance to their own government and empower some Israelis to actively
support Palestinian resistance.
The act of filming in both 5 Cameras and Cinema Jenin, becomes reflection images that reach and penetrate into Israel. As a strategy it is controversial but
as a development it proposes another type of path towards Palestinian self
determination which has the possibility of breaking down the Israeli mind set
from within: a Palestinian Trojan Horse.
From the point of view of the audience these two films,
Jenin and 5 Broken Cameras demand a level of active engagement with the
material. They are not shot from a notional point of neutrality. There’s no
doubt about the point of view from which the film expresses itself. There is no
doubt about the partisan nature of film making. Because this is completely transparent the audience
know the grounds on which to base reservations or criticism and are also
sensitised to bias and fabrication.
They are put on the alert to evaluate what they are presented with. The are challenged to view the material
with critical tools of appraisal.
The viewers are exposed in these films to self believed
Palestinian utterances and discourses.
The viewers are in a position where neutrality or even indifference in
respect of the relations revealed is challenged. Relations of power, territoriality, hierarchy and politics
and social concerns. 5 Broken Cameras (5BC) through the continuous filming of
Burnat over 6 years, is part of the process of witnessing and resisting Israeli
development of illegal West bank settlements, occupation. land theft and wall
erection. The film and the
film makers are part of the forces of opposition by the villagers of Bil’in to
the mechanical forces of Israeli occupation. Burnat’s camera is not just a tool not only a means to
record. Through the medium of the footage the audience also becomes part of the
thinking about the process of resistance to what seems to be a superior
To deny what the Burnat’s camera films, as some will do, you
have to think about the material in a specific manner. You have to believe either that 5
Broken Cameras is a perverse project, whose objective is distortion and
fabrication. Or that it is an unwitting project, in which a naïve subject
Burnat is exploited for his limited capacity to see and film only from one
limited perspective. The beauty of
the documentary film is that the evidence is in the film. However much these films may be edited,
the integrity of the process in which they are enfolded remains. All viewers are equal in viewing and
evaluating the relations with which they are presented. And it is this integrity to which