God’s Country: The Settlers

Daniella Weiss in a scene from the documentary The Settlers, directed by Shimon Dotan. Image courtesy of Philippe Bellaiche.

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The Settlers
Directed by Shimon Dotan
Opens March 3 at Film Forum

The sound of howling wind and the Doppler whoosh of passing cars. We’re on Highway 90, the road that passes through Israel and Palestine. Then we pause and hear the sound of a faint prayer echoing in the breeze. This gives way to the clanking of industrial machines, carrying pieces of a portable residence off a truck. Then a man stands singing on a hill, starkly offsetting the brilliant, awe-inspiring desert before him. He’s the first of the Settlers we meet. What’s a settler? Director Shimon Dotan lines up dozens of them in front of an obvious green screen minutes later to ask the same question. One man is angry: “That’s how the media and leftists define me.” Another seems confused. “Settler, inhabitant. What’s the difference?” A settler for our purposes is a person who built his home where the state of Israel has no sovereignty, and there are tens of thousands of them. The confused man thinks on it for a minute, then recognizes that there is in fact, a huge difference, and asks for the question again so he can give a straighter answer, which Dotan cuts. The Settlers, his terrifying new documentary, is chiefly concerned with that tailored delusion. How do you convince yourself of something if you know that you are wrong?

The Settlers is a sprawling and infuriating account of the Israel/Palestine conflict, with special attention paid to the history of Jewish inhabitants taking land in the West Bank and claiming it for themselves, building up communities with no one stopping them. Combining talking heads, field interviews, animation and gorgeous drone footage, Dotan builds a compelling case for throwing up your hands and crying rather than contemplating a solution. The fractured country seems like it might simply crack in two rather than continue to sustain such rancor. Dotan’s brutal centerpiece finds a young Jewish woman named Mati trying to stop a farmer from plowing his fields. Mati thinks the land he’s working by rights belongs to the Jewish people who have settled on his land illegally a few miles away. “It says so explicitly in the Bible” that the land is hers and not the farmer’s. She says this with such tossed-off conviction, like she were naming her favourite colour. The most terrifying part, however, is in the way she talks about the olive trees on the land. “At the moment the residents of Jaloud” tend to the olive trees. Dotan’s voice off screen questions her, genuine perplexity on his tongue. She claps her hand and reiterates: “At the moment…” “And after this moment?” That is the film’s MO in a nutshell. The settlers are so steadfastly convinced of their claim to the lands that there appears to be no reasoning with them. When God is on your side, why on earth would you relent?

From the the Six Day War to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist to the current crop of fundamentalists whom the police will not interfere with, The Settlers paints a stunning portrait of runaway zealousness. The conflict is so bitter now that the humanity of the natives has vanished to the settlers; the hollow-eyed gaze of so many of the young faithful as they talk about the rights granted to them by God is truly haunting. The film is shocked but resolute in the face of what it calls the apartheid state that has evolved ever since the Israeli state attacked and occupied the Gaza Strip and Sinai in 1967. Ray Fabi’s mournful score and Philippe Bellaiche’s frank cinematography are both unsettling and transfixing. Bellaiche and Dotan compose their subjects splendidly, frequently placing their figures off-center in landscapes, highlighting their invasive presence and the way their individuality been supplanted by an ideology based around land and property. The film is too canny to play like a plea. Dotan, who was spent most of his life in Israel before moving to the US to make action movies and teach at NYU, knows too well that there is no stopping the violence now. The settlers will continue to build, to make their passage through the West Bank easier until they have everything they believe they are owed. Their own Prime Minister and many of his cabinet openly oppose a Palestinian state, and that may prove more important than the word of God. The war is everywhere, like that howling wind that stalks every landscape and face throughout the movie. The land and the wind may be all that’s left when the violence is done, the sound of cars, machines and voices as ancient as the beliefs that brought them in the first place.

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