Asked who he hoped would be the audience for his new documentary, The Settlers, director Shimon Dotan replied, “All Israelis, all Jews and anyone with an interest in the Middle East.”
The Settlers, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival (and which was made with financial support from the Israeli network YES and from the European network ARTE, among others) and which opened throughout Israel recently, takes an in-depth look at the Jews living on the West Bank.
“I tried to weave together the history, the ideology and the reality on the ground today to create a narrative.”
Dotan said he understood that this was an ambitious subject for a documentary, so he tried to narrow his focus.
“Of course the film does not represent all the 400,000 settlers. That was never my intent... I wanted to identify and bring to the surface those who drive the enterprise.”
Although Dotan did interview some of those he calls “quality-of-life settlers,” people who live over the green line because they can afford much larger housing there – and who he said account for about 80 percent of Jews living on the West Bank – he concentrated on the leaders and ideologues of the movement. Among those who speak in archival footage are Rabbis Moshe Levinger and Chanan Porat, and contemporary interviewees include Daniella Weiss, Yehuda Etzion and Yoel Bin Nun.
“Their sense of being right and fighting for a cause is the element that drives the settlements,” said Dotan, who is open about being on the left of the political spectrum, but who wants to understand the settlers and their ideology.
Although there are some academics and Palestinians who give their perspectives, the majority of the film is interviews with the settlers.
He frames the film with two questions, at first asking them if they consider themselves settlers and accept the term: Some do and some don’t, and he lets them explain their reasons. At the end, he asked where they thought the borders of Israel should be, and some, citing biblical sources, said they believed that Israel should extend to the Nile.
The leaders told their stories and explained their motivation, and to organize these stories, Dotan structured the film into several chapters, each of which opens with a quote from the bible and an illustration.
These illustrations, by David Polonsky, who created the animation in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, are done in the style of illuminated bible manuscripts from the Middle Ages.
“The illustrations are an organizing pattern... the facts are relevant, but these illustrations give a sense of the narrative... I asked my illustrator to look at wonderful images, some of them by Gustave Dore, from 150 different editions of the Bible. Those images have become iconic.”
These images helped Dotan illuminate the settlers’ sense of themselves and their narrative.
“Their story is no less epic than a biblical story,” said Dotan.
One example of a part of the settlers’ saga that seems almost biblical is Sarah Nachshon’s tale of having her son circumcised in the Cave of the Patriarchs and then, after he died in infancy, defying soldiers and politicians to bury him in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron. Baruch Goldstein’s attack on Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994 in which he killed 29 people is another important chapter in the narrative, and the film explains how Goldstein inspired Yigal Amir to assassinate prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“It is the way they see themselves, that they live the reality as biblical narrative... [Rabbi] Yossi Froman makes the statement that he does not feel that he owns the land, that the land belongs to God that we are both guests, the Jews and the Palestinians, that’s how he sees the reality, he is not possessive of the land.” Dotan has an eclectic resume.
Born in Romania and raised in Israel, he was a naval commando in the IDF, then studied filmmaking at Tel Aviv University.
He has made movies in Israel, among them an adaptation of David Grossman’s Smile of the Lamb, and documentaries such as Hot House, about Palestinian prisoners. He also had a period when he worked in Hollywood, and made action movies and dramas, among them Warriors and Coyote Run.
His 2012 movie, Watching TV with the Red Chinese, is about a trio of Chinese exchange students living in New York. He currently lives part of the year in New York, where he teaches filmmaking at the New School and is on the faculty of New York University.
“I grew up as a young socialist, with a strong belief that doing the right thing means building and defending the country. The ethos was that you have to contribute and defend it with your life if need be.”
This attitude was put the test when Dotan’s crew was documenting settlers from Yizhar interfering with the olive harvest in the Palestinian village of Burin. “There was an attack on my crew by the Yizhar settlers, who stole all of our equipment and beat my cameraman with an iron rod.”
Dotan decided not to include the incident in the film, however.
“It’s brutal and unpleasant, but our story is bigger than that.”
The problem, in Dotan’s eyes, is not the thousands of settlers who would oppose such an attack, but “that the extremists are calling the shots. They are driving this truck.”
Dotan said he wants people to understand the reality, in all its complexity. “I don’t think Israel faces a military threat, but I think it does face the threat of disintegration from within... I think there is a threat to democracy and to the moral fabric of the country... I want the film to present a dialogue with the settlers in a way that will enlighten people.”