Sometimes a film comes along which makes conventional criticism not only irrelevant but also insulting or even complicit in the injustice being exposed. For the record Open Bethlehem has poor visual quality in places and is frequently hard on the ears. The sequence of events can be hard to follow and more loose ends are left than one might normally think wise. But they are not the standards by which a film like this must be judged. The subject matter invites an emotional response rather than nitpicking over technicalities. In any case many of the images have been taken covertly, their flaws not only understandable but badges of honour given the conditions under which they were procured. This is guerrilla film making, art as human witness, a political – but only political – call to arms.
After an absence of many years Leila Sansour returned to Bethlehem, the city of her father’s birth to show what had become of the place under Israeli rule. With her English husband in tow and intending to stay for a year she ended up being unable to leave, at an unrevealed cost to her marriage and while friends who had lived throughout the occupation despaired of the future and sought a life elsewhere. The reason for her change of heart was the wall – or rather Wall: a monstrosity on this scale deserves to be capitalised. The security device ostensibly designed to protect Israelis from terrorism snakes across the landscape, the only eyesore visible from space. Old olive groves, the livelihood of families for generations were torn up without notice. Houses were demolished with no hint of compensation or surrounded – no, imprisoned – on three sides. The citizens of Bethlehem have been reduced to queuing at a checkpoint in order to leave their city for work or to visit relatives, the number of permits available deliberately, perniciously small. And the Wall itself is no less ugly as a physical object than it is conceptually, a barrier made up of prefabricated concrete parts towering over the community it has demonised. Nor is this the first or worst unsightliness to be inflicted on this biblical terrain. Ranks of white houses and apartment blocks swarm over hillsides around the city on land stolen from Palestine. To British eyes they resemble a sink estate in the making, so cheaply built, so cramped and lacking in character you wonder why anyone would want to live in such a place, never mind the larceny that made it possible.
It is to tell the world of her city’s plight that Sansour set up the Open Bethlehem campaign. In the process she makes no pretence to even-handedness, a more serious charge that might be brought against the film. Mention is avoided of Arab attacks upon Israel, threatened or carried out whose defeat enabled it to grab so much territory, while the only concession to balance is a brief extract from Benjamin Netanyahu, seen speaking on a television screen. I can imagine his government’s spokesman, one of those plausible types with an Ivy League twang to his accent criticising this one-sidedness. But the Israeli case is made – and supported – everywhere with ruthless partiality. Around the time we watch Open Bethlehem Netanyahu is addressing the joint houses of Congress which give him numerous standing ovations. And the Americans wonder why people hate them so much.
Three more points arise from watching this sad yet not uninspiring documentary. First, to judge from the old photographs and films Sansour has rescued this used to be a beautiful and fascinating country, tolerant and culturally diverse. The tomb of the matriarch Rachel stands for what has happened. Formerly a little run-down, commercially unexploited and venerated by all three of the Holy Land’s faiths it has been encased in walls and forbidden to all except coach parties of Jewish visitors, the white dome barely visible inside the concrete and barbed wire, a symbol of something lost in the name of protecting it.
That brings me to the second cause for reflection. Bethlehem, the birth place of Christ is a crucible in which religion, heated to extreme temperatures by political forces becomes separated into its several elements: transcendence and obscurantism, immersiveness and superstition, the power to move and an inability to deliver. The horrors unfolding around the site of the manger make the message of peace and love, or at least its guardians and visiting bigwigs with their professional piety and funny clothes look powerless to prevent the most obvious and terrible wrong from happening on the Saviour’s doorstep.
Lastly, and most strikingly of all the film’s depiction of those struggling to survive this nightmare displays little in the way of rage. True, most of those featured are educated, many being Christian as well – a reminder of how liberal and cosmopolitan the Palestinians used to be before Israel drove Gaza into the arms of Hamas. But watching the film, and listening to its director answering questions afterwards I could not help wonder how many of us would endure the same fate with such moderation and dignity.