The Oscar-nominated features “5 Broken Cameras” and “How to Survive a Plague” represent documentaries in the truest, purest form of the word: They capture a spark, a moment in history, and they make us feel as if we were there, too.
Both films were shot by regular people who happened to be witnessing an uprising. They’re by amateur photographers who had the foresight to record everything – long before such a practice became the norm with the advent of the iPhone and YouTube – from the mundane moments of their daily lives to scenes of violence, upheaval, death and eventually some sort of victory.
They’re very different films from very different directors on very different topics. “5 Broken Cameras” is a collaboration between Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and Israeli director Guy Davidi featuring years of footage Burnat shot in his occupied village of Bil’in, a place that became a sort of symbol for nonviolent resistance. Each of the five cameras was destroyed in the midst of protests or gunfire; one still has a bullet lodged in the lens. But it also includes daily events in the life of this husband and father of four; he actually bought the first camera in 2005 for the reason so many parents do, to record the first smiles and steps of his youngest son, Gibreel.
“Plague” is a collection of archival footage from the late 1980s and early `90s, as members of the New York-based AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) fought to find a cure for the disease as it quickly spread and claimed millions of lives. Director David France, who was in the middle of many of these boisterous planning meetings and theatrical demonstrations, culled through thousands of hours of footage from about two dozen different sources.
Burnat of “5 Broken Cameras” said he’d always intended to make a movie, but initially figured it would be something private to show to family and friends. He felt it was his responsibility to depict the fight for territory through his own eyes.
“Many films were made about Palestine and the subject but the story was being told by people who live outside. They didn’t feel this feeling, this relation between the person and the land and how to live, how to survive in this situation under occupation,” Burnat said.
He watched his brothers get arrested and friends get shot by Israeli military, and even though he knew it was dangerous to venture into it all with his camera, “this is the situation, this is our life, our daily life,” Burnat said. “At the same time, I was thinking for my kids, the future of my kids, to make this for them. My goal is to show the world and to spread the film and to change people, to change the situation. So this was important for me.”
Burnat sought out Davidi, who shaped the film and wrote the narration, because he knew him as an Israeli peace activist. Together, the two aimed to craft a documentary with no political slant or judgment.
Davidi spent a year and a half editing from 900 hours of footage that Burnat and a few others had shot before bringing in French editor Veronique Lagoarde-Segot to help fine-tune the narrative. He said the naturalistic, intimate look of “5 Broken Cameras” isn’t as effortless as it may appear.
“People have a lot of appreciation for a film that looks like it was heavily thought, it was planned, it looks spectacular with nice, big cameras, and in our film we actually try to make it simple,” he said. That included ruining some of the footage to make it appear even more authentically raw.
The people whose video appears in “How to Survive a Plague” similarly wanted to share their story with the world. France said the photographers had a number of motivations, from filling in the gaps of traditional media reporting to documenting when police were excessively rough during demonstrations to capturing quiet moments with loved ones before they died. The result: France often had the benefit of coverage of the same event from several different angles.
“It was a true witness-bearing,” said France, who spent two years cutting the film. “You also see in those scenes how comfortable people were on camera because the cameras were always present, which was only made possible by a true revolution in home video. They were not these tiny, handheld things but for the first time it was affordable to ordinary people to record things in that way. The camcorder came out in 1982, you had HIV in 1981 and by 1987 those tools were being used broadly.”
As in “5 Broken Cameras,” France wanted to tell a story that was free of partisanship.
“What we were reaching for in `How to Survive a Plague’ was to allow somebody who had no knowledge of this time and this movement to have the experience we had when it was happening, to really not know the outcome, to not know from day to day and scene to scene who was going to live and who was not going to live,” France said. “Would we get there in time? We realized in the course of editing it that this was a real-life medical thriller.”
AJ Schnack, founder of the Cinema Eye Honors for nonfiction filmmaking where both of these movies were recent winners – “5 Broken Cameras” took the top prize, while “Plague” won for its editing – views this approach as an extension of the kind of long-form investigative journalism that television networks don’t do as much of anymore. By comparison, he said, a provocateur like Michael Moore is tantamount to an opinion page writer.
“(Davidi) has the task of taking not only footage from his narrator/co-director/subject but also footage that other people shot at that time and still making it feel like a first-person account. I think that’s one of the things that’s a success in that film, is that it feels constantly like it’s Emad’s voice and camera but it’s the culmination of a bunch of different people shooting,” said Schnack, whose films include “Kurt Cobain About a Son.” “`How to Survive a Plague’ is somewhat similar in that he’s taking the video from a number of sources at the time and trying to craft a narrative that feels fairly singular – that’s why the editor remains the most important person in the documentary in some ways.
“In the case of both films,” he added, “both become successful if they tell you something new about something you think you know.”