Human Rights Watch Film Festival: ‘This Is My Land… Hebron’ and ‘La Toma'

This Is My Land... Hebron

This Is My Land… Hebron explores the ugly frictions between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank city, while in La Toma (The Siege), families of civilians who may have been killed by the Colombian military seek justice decades later.

This Is My Land... Hebron

Director: Giulia Amati, Stephen Natanson
Rated: NR
Studio: Mercury Media
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-06-27 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival NY)

La Toma (The Siege)

Director: Angus Gibson, Miguel Salazar
Rated: NR
Studio: International Center for Transitional Justice
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-06-28 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival NY)

Editor's note: 'This Is My Land… Hebron' screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York on 28 and 29 June, each night followed by a Q&A with Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson. 'La Toma (The Siege)' screens on 28, 29, and 30 June, the first two nights followed by a Q&A with Angus Gibson and Miguel Salazar.

To the Jewish settlers who have made their home in the West Bank city of Hebron, it is nothing less than the spiritual center of their religion and their lives. The scripture tells them prophets walked those hills, Abraham is buried there, and so, their presence is not just desirable but also necessary.

To the Palestinians who face daily abuse in Hebron, the city has become a site of humiliation and heartache, where they are pelted with insults and rocks, and herded through endless security checkpoints or forced inside under seemingly arbitrary curfews.

In This Is My Land… Hebron, Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson take their cameras into the heart of the old city to show how these communities exist side by side. Over the past couple of decades, several hundred Jewish settlers have moved into Hebron, a Palestinian city of 160,000. After the infamous 1994 mass shooting by a settler in Hebron (he killed 29 Palestinians while they were at prayer), the Israeli army set up a security apparatus of almost otherworldly proportions to keep the settlers separate from Palestinians. Still, very little protection is offered to Palestinians (screen netting over one of their market alleys to keep out rocks, but settlers just toss dirty water through it). Weekly house searches, near-constant curfews, and “sterilized” streets (where no Palestinians are allowed to walk) are the day-to-day reality for most of Hebron’s residents.

Repeatedly in the film, the settlers’ children rush at the camera, throwing stones and flipping the finger, as their parents watch. Kids taunt Palestinian children on their way to school, while Israeli soldiers stand by, and genocidal anti-Arab graffiti is spray-painted on the old stone walls. The headmaster of a Palestinian girls’ school notes that the settlers’ children are taught to hate from birth, and little shown on screen would seem to contradict that statement. All of this informs the thinking of Gideon Levy, a journalist for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, whose anti-settler writings have made him something of a lightning rod for controversy. To him, Hebron is just the last place on earth he wants to have to go on assignment. It’s “the place of evil.”

While Amati and Natanson follow European peace groups and a tour led by an ex-Israeli soldier now intent on showing his countrymen the reality of Hebron, they also let settlers express their desire to be live safely in the place of their choosing. But no matter how rational they sound in interviews here, the film underlines the hatred and violence that seem the inevitable result from their upbringing.

Half a world away, another conflict shows rages. Angus Gibson and Miguel Salazar’s frequently vivid but sometimes un-engaging La Toma (The Siege) recounts the aftermath of an explosive moment in Columbian history. In November 1985, a detachment of guerrillas from the M-19 movement that had been battling the government for years, stormed the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogota, taking hundreds of civilians hostage. But because their demand -- that the Columbian president, Belisario Betancur, be brought to trial -- would never be met, the result was easy to predict.

Gibson and Salazar’s film features television footage from 1985, in which a shocking number of civilians are allowed to run about the vast concrete plaza in front of the Palace of Justice’s hulking modernist edifice, as soldiers blast their way in with tanks. The military’s frighteningly cavalier attitude toward casualties is apparent in the final body count, with nearly 100 people dead, many of them civilians, and including 11 Supreme Court justices.

This attitude also leads to an even more disturbing occurrence. According to many of the family members and witnesses interviewed by Gibson and Salazar, in the aftermath of the bloody battle to liberate the Palace of Justice, a dozen people disappeared, including eight cafeteria workers. The survivors believe the army kidnapped these people, then tortured and then killed them to cover up the whole fiasco. The army officer who led the assault, Colonel Plazas Vega, appears something of an outsized villain here, with his unctuous demeanor and penchant for Rumsfeld-esque statements like, “Disorder is a part of war.”

La Toma's eventual loss of momentum may have to do with the frustrating nature of the story. It's hard to believe justice can prevail in a country where less than 5% of those responsible for more than 400,000 murders committed between 1985 and 2001 were successfully prosecuted. But like so many South American advocates for the disappeared, these families seem possessed of an unreal fortitude, made more impressive the longer that Vega makes them wait for answers.

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