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On Political, Religious, and Business Interests in The West Bank: 'The Settlers'

The Settlers is a poignant documentary focused on the Israeli Settler Movement in the West Bank and the multiple forces perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Settlers

Director: Shimon Dotan
Cast: Moshe Halbertal, Moshe Levinger, Talia Sasson
Rated: PG
Studio: BOND/360
Year: 2016
US Release Date: 2017-03-03 (Limited release)

Over a brisk 100 minutes, Shimon Dotan’s The Settlers traces the enormously complex and violent Israeli settler movement in the West Bank, where 400,000 settlers currently reside amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The film will inevitably be met by criticism. Dotan’s overview of myriad conflicting historical accounts in such a short time may overwhelm those unfamiliar with these issues. However, those well versed in the subject might criticize The Settlers’ lack of attention to the origins of the Zionist movement, which started in the 1890s. Premised on the argument that Israel has the right to expand its territorial lines, this movement alone has its own story to tell. Other viewers may object to the fact that the film spends less time investigating Palestinian positions, compared to the wealth of interview coverage with Israeli settlers and scholars; a decision which may be considered as uneven reportage.

The Settlers is best viewed as making a case that is less concerned with historic detail, and more interested in a broader emotional saga, focused on the multiple forces perpetuating religious warfare.

At the documentary’s heart is a troubling interplay between interviews rife with messianic declarations of settler expansion, and harrowing footage of ceaseless Israeli-Palestinian warfare over several decades. The Settlers amplifies this sentiment through its continual return to gloriously captured wide shots of the West Bank’s sprawling mountains. Here Dotan makes a stirring visual appeal that the preservation of such tranquil beauty remains at odds with endlessly hostile territorial disputes.

Dotan’s interview coverage --  intimate and emotionally purposeful  --  sustains our astonishment throughout. In one scene, a young woman stands on a majestic hilltop overlooking a horizon of green rolling hills caught under an enormous powder blue sky. However, rather than be content with the beauty of her surroundings, she insists on the manifest expansion of Israeli settlers well beyond the politically arranged borders between Israel and Palestine.

The Settlers is an equally effective exercise in sudden disorientation. During one remarkable scene, an Israeli settler stands outside a trailer home playing with his two laughing children -- a picturesque family moment. But then the father asks his kids, with the same gleeful tone, if one day they will fight Arabs. The kids happily reply that they will, to their father's approval. In a mere instant, for viewers, anyway, a joyous occasion abruptly becomes frightening.

On a more holistic level, The Settlers’ does a fine job of questioning links between the past and today’s institutional behavior.

The first third of the film focuses on messianic stories, religious lore, and civil disobedience exclusive to the Israeli settlers. In 1969, interviewee Sarah Nachshon had her child circumcised in the Cave of Patriarchs in the city of Hebron, which at the time had been an exclusively Arab land. When her infant died six months later, she successfully insisted against Palestinian resistance that he be buried in an old Jewish cemetery in Hebron proper. As the account reflects, the presence of this grave in Hebron was seminal to the influx of Israeli settlers to the city.

Nachshon’s interview segment is a rich, self-contained narrative. But it also provides a juxtaposition with the latter half of the film, in which Dotan blurs the meaning of “settler”, and thereby highlights 21st century institutional exploitation of both the Israeli settler movement and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the final third of The Settlers, Dotan spices the film with aerial footage of the 21st century West Bank, now littered with luxury apartment complexes and a sleek, Israeli-government built highway connecting the West Bank to Jerusalem. As an indirect result, Dotan argues that the Settler movement's definition risks being more generalized and exploitable. One settler boasts of a major increase in the square footage in his new home. Another business owner discusses his decision to reside in the West Bank absent the specific religious and ideological principles set forth by the original settlers.

Obfuscating the definition of “settler” further still, experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict discuss the bureaucratic and political forces which have been also responsible for the continued proliferation of Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

This coverage shifts The Settlers from a linear narrative laden with prophetic tales to a dizzying blur of political, religious, and business interests. Again, The Settlers may vex some viewers, as its mushrooming hodgepodge of arguments pertaining to the haplessness of trying to resolve the settlers' perceived exasperation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could cause one to question the film’s value in an era when instant solutions are to be expected.

However, frustration over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be confused for the film’s success. While The Settlers may be difficult to sit through, it sustains an immersive sense of concern and urgency about one of the world’s most pressing issues. Indeed, many audience members will leave The Settlers with a yearning for peace.


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