Representing a remarkable feat of access and explication from the Romanian-born, Israeli-raised filmmaker Shimon Dotan, “The Settlers” traces the history of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and their growth through both individual action and, in this telling, the sometimes tacit encouragement of Israeli politicians. Dotan doesn’t do much to disguise his pessimistic perspective on one of the most fought-over areas on the globe, where he encounters a range of rationales for living on contested land (as well as some surprisingly unguarded interview subjects). Two heated questions from audience members at a festival Q&A hardly portend widespread controversy, but there’s no question that this documentary has the power to provoke strong reactions. Exposure at fests that regularly put a spotlight on the conflict is assured, but the pic is gripping enough that it could easily break out to wider arthouse auds.
In a sense, the film qualifies as a follow-up to Dotan’s Sundance 2007 prizewinner, “Hot House,” which focused on Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Dotan begins “The Settlers” by asking Israelis who have chosen to live in the West Bank questions like “Are you a settler?” and “What is a settler?” — finding a lack of agreement on both labels and definitions. This line of questioning serves as a framing device of sorts: At the end, Dotan gets divergent answers on how far the boundaries of Israel should extend.
Interweaving archival footage and contemporary interviews with the settlers and with academics, Dotan portrays the movement’s growth as a kind of feedback loop of incremental protests, governmental indifference and political calculation. The rabbi Moshe Levinger, a controversial leader of the settlement movement, is seen describing the first push into the West Bank almost as an act of civil disobedience, saying that “only after we actually settle will we be taken seriously.” Dotan interviews Sarah Nachshon, a settler who had a son circumcised in the Cave of the Patriarchs; later, after the boy died in infancy, she pressed for his burial in a West Bank cemetery, which the film suggests had the effect of ensuring that some Israeli military presence remained in the area.
Although Dotan includes occasional Palestinian voices, like that of the lawyer Raja Shehadeh, “The Settlers” is largely focused on the settlers, whose rhetoric often undermines their own case. One openly identifies as a racist; another details his participation in a violent plot. There are also signs of internal dissent: “Not on TV, not on the camera,” one settler admonishes another when the latter questions the wisdom of exclusionary politics.
Dotan also reflects on the roadblock that the settlements likely pose to the peace process. In old footage, Yitzhak Rabin is shown speaking about the settlements’ costs for security per family, adding that those costs don’t provide security for Israel. Talia Sasson, who published a report commissioned under the administration of Ariel Sharon, explains that she found that state funds were quietly used to build West Bank outposts. Curiously, or perhaps by design, nowhere in the film is the name Benjamin Netanyahu ever uttered.
Even so, Dotan conveys a sense of a place whose residents can’t be divided into neat categories. We see evangelical Christians visiting the settlements from the United States; a man who describes himself as being from a “WASP” background, and who has chosen to reside in the West Bank for no particular religious or ideological purpose; and an Israeli who has moved to the area to take advantage of the real estate prices. One settler who has grown up in the West Bank has built her home as a sort of yurt, so that it can be packed up easily. Dotan also finds a young group of extremists (Dotan freeze-frames a wedding video to call attention to two participants’ arson arrests) who have what Hebrew U. professor Moshe Halbertal calls “martyr envy.”
Partisans on both sides of the conflict will find plenty to argue with, as would be the case with almost any movie on this topic. The real achievement here is in going beyond the buzzwords of newscasts and talking points to convey a sense of what’s happening on the ground — and to give it a sense of urgency.
Tech credits are polished, with editing that sifts through a great deal of material with speed and clarity.