Shooting an elephant

No scene in 5 Broken Cameras challenges the viewer’s credulity like the chicken scene.

The chicken scene opens with Adeeb and Phil looking at a tree full of chickens. Both of them smile and point at the chickens. Surely Emad has said to them “Act like you’re talking about the chickens in the tree.”

a tree full of chickens

a tree full of chickens

While Adeeb and Phil awkwardly point at the chickens, Emad, in voiceover, talks about his two friends. “Through the camera, I see Adeeb’s endurance, Phil’s great spirit,” he says. The camera pans from Adeeb and Phil to the chickens in the tree. “They both have such a love of life.”

Next is a shot of Adeeb sitting in a deck chair. A child squirms in his lap while he (Adeeb) talks about the chickens. “They have a coop,” says Adeeb, “but they won’t go in it. Everyday – wintertime, summertime… They climb the tree everyday.”

“Why?” asks Emad.

Adeeb smiles broadly. He knows his friend has made him the narrator of an obvious allegory. He shrugs, and laughs, and delivers his line: “They have their freedom!”

The chickens are Adeeb and Phil and the rest of the residents of Bil’in: they don’t want to be cooped up, they want to be free, they have such a love of life.

The sheep scene is less difficult to believe.

a sheep resists

a sheep resists

A sheep resists as two men force her through a doorway. Gibreel slumps in a chair and watches. “Gibreel is 4 years old now, so is Bil’in’s resistance,” remarks Emad.

The sheep’s throat is cut. The viewer gets a close-up of her blood spilling across concrete as she continues to try to shake off her killers. Gibreel stays slumped a few feet away. “The only protection I can offer him,” says Emad, “is allowing him to see everything with his own eyes, so he can confront just how vulnerable life is.”

Elsewhere in the film Emad says of the conflict between Bil’in and the IDF and the settlers “It’s an endless cycle”; and he says “People feel that nothing will stop the occupation from its course”; and Phil says “They’ll never take down the wall if they can keep building the settlement. It’s all for nothing!” This fatalism is in the sheep scene, too: the sheep’s death is framed as an inevitable consequence of the vulnerability of life. Gibreel is allowed to see her get slaughtered for the same reason that he is allowed to watch the residents of his town get shoved around and shot at and slaughtered.

The sheep, like the chickens, is Adeeb and Phil and the rest of the residents of Bil’in: she resists violence, but she is vulnerable.

There are many other animals in 5 Broken Cameras: goats, and a horse, and a donkey, and a deer. There are four long shots of birds over Bil’in. (Perhaps these shots are what prompted one reviewer to call the film “a birdsong of perseverance in the face of irrational violence.”) And there is El-Phil, the elephant.

birds over Bil'in

birds over Bil’in

Phil isn’t often fatalistic. Late in the film, Emad says “Phil is the only one who’s still optimistic. He’s like his nickname, ‘the elephant.’ Strong and thick-skinned. But he’s a gentle man.” Emad hopes that Gibreel, too, will become elephant-like: “Gibreel’s skin is so sensitive, even the scratch of a sponge leaves marks on his back. I hope he’ll develop a thick skin fast.”

Everyone in Bil’in is chicken-like and sheep-like, but Phil is the only one we meet who is nicknamed after a nonhuman. So when he falls to the ground dead in the scene that follows the sheep scene, we are both shocked and not.

In December 2013, Gary Yourofsky travelled to the West Bank to speak at Ariel University, about twenty kilometers northeast of Bil’in. Prior to his trip, Yourofsky spoke to Haggai Matar about visiting occupied territory: “I don’t care about Jews or Palestinians…I care about animals, who are the only oppressed, enslaved and tormented beings on this planet…When people start eating up Jew flesh, or seared Palestinian children in between two slices of bread with onions, pickles and mustard, then I’ll be concerned about the Middle East situation.”

5 Broken Cameras is an earnest, artful doc. Had Emad and co-director Guy Davidi chosen a satiric approach, however, it might well have taken the form of a modest proposal: the film is about an occupying power that has already devoured much of Emad and seems to have the best title to Gibreel; it is about a country which would be glad to eat up Emad’s whole nation without any condiments.

Daniel Erlich told Matar that criticisms of Yourofsky are “due to the tendency to put humans at the center of everything – a tendency shared even by some vegans.” Indeed: in Yourofsky’s comments to Matar, nonhumans are “innocent,” passive victims, and humans are heterogeneous victimizers, “Humans are the SCUM of the earth,” humans are uniquely abject and active, humans are unique.

Yourofsky’s right, though: humans are, mostly, SCUM of a sort: our cells are mostly microbes, mostly bacteria and fungi and protists. And we’re chickens and sheep and elephants, too. We share such a love of life with these species, and we share an often fatal vulnerability. We are not unique.

But we’re not homogeneous, either, we are not “we.” The category “human” is a privileged category occupied by a very few hominids. The residents of Bil’in aren’t among them, thus they’re subject to occupation.

Adeeb asks the occupiers, the IDF, “Have you no heart?” And again, later, “Where’s your heart? Your commander has no heart!” He’s asking them to acknowledge their vulnerability, the vulnerability they share with the residents of Bil’in, and with chickens and sheep and elephants. Yourofsky, too, refuses to acknowledge this shared vulnerability. His refusal allies him with an army that makes it easy for vegans to kill elephants, to kill El-Phil.

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One thought on “Shooting an elephant

  1. Pingback: The Myth of Vegan Progress in Israel | Dylan Powell

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