Cross-Cultural Communication in “Cameras”

by Sthom9 on November 18, 2013 - 11:06pm

The term “crossing borders” can mean many things: from literal border-crossing such as immigration and migration, to cross-cultural communication and the difficulties it can cause.  Emad Burnat’s Five Broken Cameras is a perfect example of that latter of these.  In particular, it illustrates the conflict that arose between the small Palestinian village of Bil’in and Israelis whose settlements encroached on their land in an attempt to force the locals out of their village.

Now, although this is a documentary (that is, actual footage of real events), it is important to remember that the director still chose what he filmed, and how he portrayed it, for a reason: to convey a certain message.  And in order to accurately convey a message and to understand what that message might have been, it is important to think about a film’s target audience.

Near the start of the film, narrator Emad Burnat tells the audience that he bought his first camera in 2005 to document the birth of his youngest son, Gibreel.  Based on this, I believe it is reasonably plausible to assume that the original target audience was simply the people of the village of Bil’in –Emad’s friends and family.  However, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began, Emad’s footage became more than just about Gibreel, and expanded to serve as a story to inform the rest of the world.  This can be seen in the way that the setting is explained to the audience.  In the beginning of the film, we get some background on the land and its inhabitants but, as the film continues, and the footage becomes more centered on the Israeli military, Emad takes more and more time to backtrack and give the viewer knowledge on the cultures of the two nations and how they relate to each other.  This leaves me to believe that, at least in the beginning, Emad was filming with the assumption that his audience would be familiar with the things he was presenting to them.

Now that we’ve identified the audience, an important question to ask is “is the film effective in communicating with this audience?’.  For sure, the story of the villagers of Bil’in is a sad one –it is a story we see repeated throughout the world of a stronger nation dominating a smaller, weaker one.  However, just because it is “sad”, does not mean it communicates what it means to.  I believe this documentary, unlike many about similar cross-cultural issues, is not meant to point the finger and declare the Israelis “bad” for trying to overtake Palestinian land.  Nor does it try to saint the people of Bil’in for their nonviolent protests to defend their land.  Rather, I think it does a good job of objectively portraying the motives of both groups, even to the point of causing the audience to forget at times that the protagonist is a Palestinian farmer who has more than enough reason to be biased.  It was this attitude that drew me to the film and made me personally receptive to its message.  Neither the Palestinians as a whole or Emad, the narrator, want others’ pity: they simply want their story to be heard.  By showing the Palestinians this way, it makes the viewer feel indignant for them and makes them want to fight alongside them.

Another reason I think this documentary succeeds in conveying this message about the difficulties in communication between cultural groups is in the way the story unfolds.  The opening scene shows Emad laying his five broken cameras out on a table and then telling of how they all came to be that way.  So, in a sense, the entire story is told as a flashback with the five different cameras marking its different “episodes”. This further drives home the idea of film (even a documentary) as a form of storytelling rather than an exact depiction of fact.  But beyond the five cameras, Emad tells the five-year story of the Israeli occupation by using his youngest son, Gibreel.  Since Israeli occupation of their land began just after Gibreel’s birth, he knows nothing else –he does not remember the free life their people had as Emad, his wife, and their other three sons did.  There is one particularly poignant scene in the film where we see a young Gibreel toddling around amongst rubble along the fence that the Israelis have erected –staking their claim on Palestinian land.  Gibreel utters some of his first words which are “cartridge”, “army” and “wall” (indicative of the fence the Israeli’s erected to keep the Palestinians out).

 In doing all these things, the viewer really sees the differences between the Israeli sense of entitlement to Palestinian land and the Palestinian’s own history and culture involving that same land.  Because of these differences, cross-cultural communication can lead to conflict.  And I believe Burnat does a great job of portraying these cultural differences in a way his audience will relate and respond to.



 Burnat, E. (Director), & Davidi, G. (Director). (2011). Five broken cameras [DVD]. Israel: Guy DVD Films.

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