5/23: The Joy of Looking

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Any real cook will tell you that the true tests of culinary skill are the simplest dishes. There is no room for error in a perfectly roasted chicken or a beautifully poached egg.

This Is Martin Bonner is the movie version of that concept. A nearly plotless 90 minutes or less, it focuses on the title character, a charming and understated Australian played by Paul Eenhorn, and his growing relationship with a recently released convict named Travis, played by Richmond Arquette (and yes, one of the famous clan). Director/writer Chuck Hartigan follows the two characters, whose paths subtly parallel each other. Divorced and in the “only job that would take me”—as a volunteer coordinator for a Christian program that attempts to reintegrate ex-prisoners into mainstream life—Martin has only recently moved to Reno, to an apartment that looks suspiciously like the hotel room where Travis finds himself upon his release. At the urging of his daughter, Martin tries speed dating. At the persistence of a very young and desperate prostitute, Travis hires her, even though they have to ride the bus to his room since he doesn’t have a car. Martin repeatedly leaves messages to a son who never picks up. Travis reunites with his daughter at a Denny’s type of restaurant, awkwardly sitting by her side as her eyes skitter everywhere but in his direction.

The movie bills itself as “quietly observational,” and it feels very much like eavesdropping. It’s to the credit of everyone involved, including cinematographer Paul McElwee, production designer Maggie Kaiser, and editor Julio Perez IV, that in a movie where very little happens, you are completely riveted. Perhaps remarkable is the way the movie deals with Christianity. Non-raving, kind people talk about the difference their faith has made in their lives, while Martin and Travis discuss, without rancor, what they don’t understand about it.

There is a charming diffidence to the entire thing, as well as refreshing honesty. In its stillness, it captures what life is like: avoiding confrontation if possible—of course, it isn’t always—accepting modest connections, keeping expectations in check, moving slowly. And yet, in the hands of so many other folks, this would be a depressing hour and a half, and it is just the opposite. Martin Bonner ends in literal and figurative sunshine. Joy, grace, and light are no less beautiful when they come in small packages—and are so much easier to grasp.

This Is Martin Bonner will play at Cinetopia, Ann Arbor’s upcoming film festival (info at link).

On the Record

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Movies can of course be art, but very few of them are. Many are simply exceptional pieces of craft, with the power to change people’s points of view, the first step to changing the world.

Exhibit A: 5 Broken Cameras, an extraordinary document by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, which I saw yesterday at Cinetopia, Ann Arbor’s first film festival and I hope the beginning of an annual tradition. In 2005, when bulldozers came in to rip up his village and its beloved olive trees, Emad –  and the intimacy of the movie is such that it feels only right to call him by his first name – started filming. But importantly, not just the destruction. In what proves to be a stunning cinematic device, all the more so for being unintentional, we watch the events not just through his various cameras, but alongside his growing children, particularly Gibreel, his youngest son, who literally grows up with the conflict.

Emad’s cameras capture everything: Gibreel’s first steps and words, peaceful if boisterous protests by the villagers, the casual lobbing of tear gas grenades into those protesters by Israeli soldiers, bullets ripping into flesh, faces burnt by shells that exploded too close, the subsequent arrests of each of his brothers. A death.

We watch curiosity become courage become obsession, not just in the steady, unwavering coverage but in the lives of the people onscreen. Two men lead the protests, positive and dynamic in their hope that somehow, justice and peace will prevail. One steadfastly appeals to the soldiers by asking them, “Don’t you have hearts? Don’t you have families?” Wounded, nearly broken at one point, he doesn’t give up, but we can hear frustration hardening to rage over the years. Soldiers are mostly impassive, occasionally act with compassion but much more often simply start tossing grenades like softballs – and yet the overall impression is that they’re young kids in over their heads, following orders . Many of them look confused. Perhaps bravest of all is Emad’s wife. In concerned and bold conversations, she speaks into the camera as if it’s become a part of her husband’s face. Late in the movie, she begs him to stop filming. He doesn’t answer.

A guard breaks one camera, a settler another, a bullet lodges in yet another and saves Emad’s life. We watch his hair turn from jet black to completely gray over a few brief years, are with him in the hospital room when a chain of a hundred staples is removed from where doctors stitched him back together. Nothing stops him.

And there’s Gibreel. Adorable and impossibly wide-eyed, he matures enough in the movie to ask his father questions. How can I not be angry? What will happen to us? Why did they kill someone who didn’t hurt them? Emad offers no answers. He has none. He just films and films.

There is tremendous bravery in the persistence of not just recording, but shaping years of observations into a coherent, compelling narrative. A tremendous team supports Emad: Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot co-edited with Mr. Davidi, and Amélie Canini edits the sound to have seamless clarity, quite a feat given non-optimal source material. Mr Davidi has said, “We wanted our film to be an understatement, not to be provocative or combative.” His success on this front is commendable.

5 Broken Cameras is a cry for understanding, for justice, but most of all for a peaceful environment where children don’t have to ask about death and displacement when they’re 4 years old. It’s also a true inspiration to anyone who feels that, for whatever reason, they can’t polish their craft. Emad Burnat was born to be a documentarian; he just didn’t know it until he got that first camera. He’s risked his life making this movie. See it.