‘The Settlers’: And How This Documentary Fails To Bring Value

Originally published on The Times of Israel on 3/12/17

I’m not sure who Shimon Dotan was aiming for. He certainly couldn’t convince me. But then again, what did he try to convince me about? Let’s discuss Shimon Dotan, Romanian-Israeli filmmaker’s new movie, The Settlers.

When you do a documentary film, you must have a punch line in mind. Or not. But then you get what I’ve got after watching The Settlers: nothing really.

In fact, I left with a bad mouth taste. The only thing I could think of was how biased this movie really is, and perhaps it serves nothing more than a self-fulfilling cinematic work. (Which, I can accept, after all, we all need a creative outlet.)

And as I don’t like thinking alone and I usually don’t leave any event without interviewing a few people, I asked two guys how they felt about the movie. They were both Jewish – and that is what I wanted, to talk with Jewish people about this.

One of them was raised as an observant Jew but never been to Israel before. As he said, however, he was taking the current Israeli situation very seriously, and the movie showed him how complex this issue really is.

I really love talking to strangers, and see how their eyes tear up as they start talking about Israel; a country they have never visited yet.

The other guy told me, the movie made him lose all hope that there is a way to make peace and the 2-state solution is clearly an utopia. Hearing that I am from Hungary, he asked me if I find any kind of parallelism between my history and Israel. Clearly, he was talking about the Russians.

“They came to occupy you, no?”

“Depends on who you ask: according to them, they came to free us.”

And that is what Dotan’s movie is about: stretching the definition of what is occupation, what is a settlement, what is a held zone.

The whole movie is one-sided. Intentionally. It was the aim. To show the Jewish side. It only brings in four Palestinians for a quick snapshot, but it shows an extensive layer of Jewish sub-communities who breathe and live for their ideology.

“Are you a settler?” The movie starts with Dotan asking the same question over and over to different Jewish families. Some struggles to answer, some take pride in being part of the settlement movement.

What bothered me the most is that if Dotan – who is evidently representing the left wing’s views in Israel – wanted to produce a documentary that shakes things up, why didn’t he do it?

If I’m already on the left side, he didn’t show me enough.
If I’m on the right side, he certainly didn’t change my opinion.

While the cinematography offered a peaceful 2-hours dear escape to Israel, the narrative was lukewarm.

Halfway through the movie, I set myself up for a challenge and decided to continue watching it as if I would have nothing to do with Israel, if I would have never been there, wouldn’t live with an Israeli.

It didn’t work.

Dotan couldn’t tell me why Israel deserves the apartheid story.

My only fear is that if this movie – that is widely praised by the New York Times and others, – is watched by people who dislike Israel, how much harm it does?

Dotan lined up a strong ideological Jewishness by interviewing the forerunners of the Gush Emunim, and today’s far-right grassroots (the hilltop youth movement) who want Israel all the way till Iraq, picturing Israel as a group of fanatic people who pray, fight and conquer lands.

Obviously, this is not the way to go. And while I personally am against fanatism – from which the movie displays a lot – that is the minority in Israel and not vice versa. And as a documentary maker Doran has a responsibility, and he can’t or shouldn’t assume that everybody knows this and that his movie won’t fuels hatred even further. I need to note here that the movie is screened in New York exactly during the Israel Apartheid Week around the US Colleges that, by itself, fuels hate and anti-Semitism. Innocent mistake or a conscious decision? We’ll never know.

The only place where The Settlers brought some value was towards the final scenes:

Israel can’t have it all. Israel can’t have democracy, ideology, and a full-fledged stretched state.

So what is the solution then?

The movie is filled with maps, dates, documents, and first-person sources, with a clear narrative that the settlements are the cause and reason for today’s troubles. It mentions the government’s push and pull games, by not approving and not disapproving the settlements. It brings up Yitzhak Rabin, the only Prime Minister who clearly did something against the settlements to establish peace; but it doesn’t mention Netanyahu and his current expansion of settlements at all. (About this I would ask Dotan. Why not?)

One thing is for sure: even if you have strong values, you need to test yourself and if it means watching a 2-hour movie that brings you to uncomfortable places, let it be. The Settlers was good enough for that.

 


And something to add: as I was exiting the theater a woman handed me over a piece of paper. I hoped it would tell me something about the movie. But no! Instead, it was the usual propaganda paper that I get at every event where BDS is present. It didn’t make the case any better. The movie was already on your side, value my freedom and let me go to a cinema without getting political propaganda.