SALT LAKE CITY — On the ninth day of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, "5 Broken Cameras" co-directors Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi ascend to the stage in a downtown theater that echoes yesteryear with a low-hanging balcony and loud paisleys dotting the plush red carpeting. More than 400 high school students sit in uncharacteristic silence, eagerly absorbing every word emerging from the men's mouths.
Sundance is the largest independent film festival in the United States. And as the 2012 event draws to a close, Burnat and Davidi stand on the cusp of fame. The very next night the men will win Sundance's World Cinema Directing Award for documentaries, and "5 Broken Cameras" is playing to rave reviews as it takes viewers to the front lines of a Palestinian village's peaceful resistance against the forceful Israeli seizure of ancestral farming land in order to build new Jewish settlements.
But the bright lights will have to wait at least a few more hours for Burnat and Davidi, who have left the fawning media and deep-pocketed film distributors up on the mountain in Park City to venture into the Salt Lake Valley and take part in the Utah High School Screening Series. The Sundance Institute annually facilitates this program so that local high school students can have the chance to view intellectually invigorating festival selections which have been rigorously screened ahead of time to ensure minimal objectionable content. (Twelve full-length documentaries were tabbed for this year's High School Screening Series, and a handful of short films made the cut for a similar program, Filmmakers in the Classroom.)
"Part of the reason why we do the high school screenings and Filmmakers in the Classroom," Sundance Institute manager of community programs Megan Leiker explains, "is to give students access to storytelling — independent filmmaking as an art form and the stories that people tell through that from around the world."
Despite no financial incentives or media coverage at these events, the filmmakers who have a movie selected to be part of a Sundance-sponsored student program often trek to the pertinent venue — either Rose Wagner Theatre in Salt Lake City or Park City High School — for something similar to what the "5 Broken Cameras" directors are doing today: introducing the film before the lights dim and answering questions after the end credits roll.
"American audiences take films in a very emotional way," Davidi explained during a sit-down interview. "I hope all these emotions will be able to be transformed into a more developed consciousness that doesn't just stay with emotions. … Here at the school screenings, we want to help (the students) develop a political consciousness about where we're living and about what is right and what is wrong."
Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who exudes a bohemian vibe while openly criticizing Israel's willingness to flex its military muscle, is at once both tactfully articulate and directly blunt in offhandedly referencing macro memes like political consciousness and relative morality. In fact, at one point during his question-and-answer session with the students, he challenges his teenage audience with some thought-provoking philosophy that they would be hard-pressed to encounter in the mainstream media.
"The Israeli government's politics are actually hurting us, the Israelis who live in Israel," Davidi said. "Good friends will hold the Israeli government accountable for its policies. We need critical friends, not friends that will just give us permission to do what we do."
In stark contrast to Davidi, Burnat is a grizzled Palestinian who spent five years fearlessly filming the incoming bullets and bloodshed of his village's protests and the ensuing clashes with the Israeli army. He barely survived the film's five-year duration.
On one occasion a sniper's round lodged in Burnat's camcorder inches before the bullet would've entered his skull, and in a separate brush with death he was in a coma for nearly a month after crashing his truck.
Despite a halting English accent that can be difficult to comprehend, Burnat is a huge hit with the students. The teens immediately take a strong liking to him after repeatedly witnessing his courage under fire as the documentary's cameraman.
In fact, perhaps the best evidence that the filmmakers and students did in fact forge a real connection across cultures through the film medium comes after the question-and-answer session ends, when more than 20 students line up to have their photo taken with Burnat.
"People after the screening come up to me (and) they want to shake my hand," Burnat said afterwards. "They want to take (a) picture with me. … I feel that they want to take my picture because they feel my life, they feel it from the inside and they want to share something with me. They want to give me support and help."