Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Broken cameras, unbroken struggles

Five Broken Cameras: Five years in the life of a Palestinian child.

Three recent documentary films reviewed by Sian R.

 Palestine, Ireland, New Zealand - each country has a brutal and much-glossed-over history of oppression and dispossession. I went to three films in this year's film festival, and realised afterwards that they all dealt with the same theme – peoples' struggles against violent displacement – and were all quite uplifting and cathartic in their own way, despite some pretty tragic subject matter.

Five Broken Cameras is a patchwork story told by Ehad Burnat, an amateur cameraman and farmer in the small village of Bil'in in Palestine's West Bank. It spans the first five years of his youngest son's life, coinciding with the beginning of Bil'in's resistance to the construction of the Israeli separation barrier. It is shot through five different cameras, each of which in turn got trampled, smashed or shot at by Israeli soldiers. Israeli editor and co-director, Guy Davidi, has neatly woven the pieces together. Burnat narrates scenes of everyday village life, giving background and context to the colourful characters that make up this humble but poignant story of cameraderie, conflict, family life, violence and tragedy.

The film is both heartwarming and provoking – seen candidly through the eyes of a father committed to the integrity of his community and family, contrasted with violent military attacks on peaceful protests and the consequences on the Palestinians' morale. Bil'in has attracted significant attention, with many international activists and supporters joining the locals in their weekly resistance to the encroaching Israeli settlements and the construction of the separation barrier with its barbed wire and arduous checkpoints. As with every film about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, critics are hasty to call it 'one-sided' and 'lacking in context'. It's true – if you know nothing about the subject, this film won't give you a broad understanding. It is also one-sided – how can such a personal account be anything else? If you want the other side, go watch a different film.

Bernadette - Notes on a Political Journey follows the political life of Irish activist, revolutionary socialist and parliamentarian, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. As well as being an indomitable champion of the civil rights movement in Ireland, an impassioned speaker and a daring activist, she was the youngest member of parliament in 1969, was imprisoned for supposedly inciting a riot the same year, was critically injured in an assassination attempt in 1981, and banned from entering America in 2003.

She's also known for wearing a miniskirt in parliament and slapping the Home Secretary for suggesting the British army only acted in self-defence in the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre of 13 unarmed protesters. Director Lelia Doolan has unearthed plenty of vibrant original footage of public speeches and street activism, interspersed with recent interviews with the subject, whose wry determination and idealism have not faded with time. The film is as entertaining as it is informative, and McAliskey's fierce sense of justice and compassion are infectious.

Tatarakihi - The Children of Parihaka is the newest work of director Paora Joseph. It documents the pilgrimmage of the decendants of Parihaka. In the 1870s and 80s the Maori inhabitants of Parihaka sustained a campaign of non-violent resistance against the confiscation and occupation of their land by European settlers, led by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, in response to the bloody land wars that ravaged Aotearoa for several decades following the signing of the Treaty. Hundreds of Parihaka residents were arrested and jailed in the South Island.

The school children's hikoi around New Zealand takes them to the places built by and prisons inhabited by the men who were stolen from their families between 1869 and 1893, incarcerated and forced into slave labour. It's gruelling to see the evidence of the conditions these men had to endure. The film uses partially animated still photographs from the period, and scenes and interviews with the children and their families as they travel from one site to the next to acknowledge the heartache and hardship their tupuna had to endure, and 'never to forget'.

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One of these struggles for self-determination, in Palestine, is very current (though it has been going on for several decades). The other two are often considered relics of history; these two films bring back into the spotlight not only the atrocities that were committed in the name of the Crown, but also the fact that to a large extent the illegal confiscations of Maori land have to this day not been rectified, and Irish workers' rights are still in the mud, as are those of the English working class in whose name the invading armies shed innocent blood.

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