‘Have you been to Palestine?’ is not a question I have been often asked if I’m honest. But thus began some really interesting conversations on a chilly London night. I found myself among people passionate about Jesus’ birthplace. And some who called or still call Bethlehem home.
What I quickly realised, was that many of those most involved with the evening’s events were Christians. Not box-tickers forced to select an option, evangelical types, proper Jesus freaks. The women I got to chatting with had recently been to modern-day Palestine, to do otherwise mundane things like teach music or run marathons. But their engagement deepened and they are now involved with project ‘Open Bethlehem’ and promoting the film about it. Given my exposure to a general discourse of Israel vs. Palestine as Jews vs. Arabs, the evening began to get interesting.
So, should you spend your time and money watching Open Bethlehem? Yes. Unless you know an informed Palestinian personally of course. Cos in that case, you could just ask them to explain what exactly ‘all the fuss is about’, and why you need to write to your MP/government to get them to recognise Palestine via a two-state solution.
With my previously noted passion for films that enable me to travel, I was looking forward to Open Bethlehem. This fascinating documentary – currently on limited release in the UK – is a semi-autobiographical film and an unusual piece of storytelling. But it’s not a perfect film if such a thing indeed exists. Narratively, I felt it lacked something. But as a story of a small town, by the townspeople, it was excellent.
Travellers and Bethlehem
As somebody who enjoys engaging with the reality as well as the beauty of the places I visit, I am aware that my presence will invariably alter my holiday spots. Thus the manner in which tourism – a hot-button issue in my Caribbean island home – was appropriated by Open Bethlehem to facilitate needed political change struck me as simply genius. That tourism was later redefined to silence dissent, to shut down an opportunity for positive change for the local population was not so instructive as disturbing.
The documentary’s brightest moments are undoubtedly the excitement of the Open Bethlehem project. Carol and Leila are the cousins whose efforts to save Bethlehem form the central narrative. They are two vivacious, passionate protagonists and the forced scaling down of the project gave way to gloom towards the conclusion of the film.
An Unusual Christmas Tale
Leila Sansour is the daughter of a bon vivant from Bethlehem whose passion for life was equalled only by his passion for his hometown. Leila’s early imagination was therefore filled with stories of a land so fantastic and so far away that it barely seemed real. However at six years old the family relocated and Bethlehem became her hometown too.
But that was a long time ago. Open Bethlehem documents the return for the first time in her adult life. Like many talented young people with the means or the opportunity, a youthful thirst for life emboldened by a rebellious nature meant Leila left Bethlehem and Palestine to study abroad and never came back. Why would anyone hang around to watch their home be slowly destroyed if it could be avoided?
As a local, Leila Sansour was able to access people, events and occasions in Bethlehem that a film maker from elsewhere simply couldn’t. And of whom or which they might not even be aware. From town council and church officials who remember her father fondly, to community members she grew up with, the viewer is in for a treat because it’s Leila’s Bethlehem on screen.
It’s Leila’s car troubles we follow, and Leila’s Palestine we engage with. The lovely ancient city whose buildings have literally been cared for by this community and flocked to since the time of Rachel, David and Jesus himself, is brought to life by one of its own. Bethlehem is not the open war zone of Gaza, but it is a united Palestinian community whose very life is being systematically eroded, and which we hope she’ll manage to save.
Leila introduces us to the self-proclaimed King of Bethlehem. Slightly tongue in cheek, the blue-eyed Bethlehemite talks about his life at the centre of the city. His shop was located in what was once the entrance to the vibrant town, and with a smile he recounts the old days and the changes he’s seen with his own eyes. But we also learn neither he nor his livelihood will withstand the demarcation wrought by the construction of the wall. His wife will, but under what circumstances and how, we can only surmise.
We also meet Claire, whose family are quite sure that the location of their home, inconvenient to the wall, is exactly where God willed it to be. They are Christians whose faith is as firm as their resolve to stay come what may. When the wall is complete, their family home will be completely encircled within its boundaries. Their view of the lovely ancient town reduced literally to an ugly concrete wall. What sort of life will they be able to maintain cut off from their beloved hometown and the outside world?
Once the wall is complete, couples, friends, families and communities will be divided; rarely-issued passes will be required to travel to places the wall divides from Israel. Wasn’t the Pan-Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe jailed for demonstrating against South Africa’s Pass Laws in 1960? I asked myself in wonder.
Leila and Carol also meet with the bishop and mayor of Palestine – the Open Bethlehem project receives support from all of the town’s stakeholders. We access the residents and council meetings where the issues pertaining to the construction of The Wall are aired and solutions desperately sought. We rejoice with the success of the Bethlehem Passport Project as the world is formally welcomed to the site of the nativity, and it responds warmly.
My only complaint about the film was that I felt the silence of young people, and I couldn’t hear Bethlehem. What music did people play at parties? Egyptian pop? Reggae? Hip Hop? The older generation got to talk about their journey into the present, but I didn’t hear much from young people about the future.
Arguably this is logical given that the future is so uncertain, but aside from seeing them getting bundled into trucks I couldn’t tell who they were, and what they were doing. This was regrettable because Open Bethlehem’s major preoccupation was the future, and the interpretations of young people who will grow up knowing the wall as norm.
Fortunately there was a Q & A after the film and the director was able to point me to another Palestinian film-maker, Jacqueline Reem Salloum, who has answered such questions in her film Slingshot Hip Hop. ‘Slingshot Hip Hop braids together the stories of young Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel as they discover Hip Hop and employ it as a tool to surmount divisions imposed by occupation and poverty.’ says the blurb. It’s an excellent film. Please watch it, it’ll make your life so much better and the soundtrack was pumping. Check out the trailer here, and the music video for the seriously catchy-yet-powerful track that is heard throughout the film below.
What is apartheid?
I was recently in South Africa. There I breezed across train tracks which, as a child, I would have been forbidden to cross at particular times of the day if I had lived there. Therefore seeing on the big screen, newly built roads which armed gunmen prevented locals from using, gripped me instantly. Watching the film only a year after the death of Nelson Mandela, was particularly unsettling. Was this progress? I pondered.
A headstrong teenager, Sansour was particular keen to get from under her eminent father’s shadow but the fact is, people had begun leaving Bethlehem in droves for decades, and particularly since the settlement constructions of the 1970s. According to the film, huge housing estates were seemingly built illegally and with no precise residents in mind. Sort of like the aim of the building was land acquisition rather than a need to house people. I can only wonder if this is why people talk about the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The Settlements and The Wall
A huge, physically imposing structure, in simple shots of The Wall’s deadening grey against the blue Bethlehem sky, the unwelcome and inappropriate nature of this new arrival in a very old town was obvious. It’s twice the height of the Berlin Wall and carves up the ancient town of Bethlehem.
Lest you are as informed as pre-Open Bethlehem me (ie hazily), from what I understand, I think this settlement malarkey is a bit like me clearing a space in a bit of rainforest in Martinique (I live there but I’m not ‘really’ from there remember).
Then I start building my family home on it, because we need a place to live and the land is pretty empty and I’d have a nice view, access to a solid water source and a gorgeous beach in this particular spot for example.
Once the house is finished and habitable I quickly insist on my need for a proper road. My mate’ll cover the cost of if I can’t, as to get anywhere I have to drive – this is the middle of the forest after all – and the clearing I’ve made is mashing up my car something rotten.
Then I’m like, well let’s build a few more homes because it’s actually quite lonely in the forest, but I’ll be deciding who gets to live in them, and I’m not so keen on Martinicans so it won’t be them.
And then maybe my mate subsidises the cost of a supermarket and a petrol station. After all, we need to eat and all this driving means I need to be near a petrol station.
Then some entrepreneurial folk open a few more shops as we keep building houses and so there’s a community to be served. It’s technically illegal, but not hurting anyone possibly while we’re just clearing land that no one is using. Illegal because I’m not had permission to build on nor purchased the land which may be collectively or individually owned. That I’m not even local would probably further jar my new neighbours.
I got the distinct impression that in Bethlehem, my space in the forest might well have been somebody’s livelihood, an olive grove for example, that I just destroyed. And while I claim my family need somewhere to live, actually, my family back in St Lucia and London were quite happily going about their lives until I started building on ‘my’ patch in the forest and telling them to come and live in my new houses in Martinique at hugely discounted rent.
For the analogy to really work, I think I’d have to get a bit obsessive about it all, and go overboard in building homes and communities on ‘my’ land. I’d start pulling down the nearby houses of Martinicans to make way for this amazing new community I’m building, and putting armed guards around it to keep any angry/embittered/dispossessed Martinicans out. But you get the idea I hope? (Assuming I have understood it properly!)
In other words
Land questions are never straightforward when money, power and time come into play. It is possible that I see parallels with Martinique everywhere, in everything all the time. But it’s hard to watch people struggle to organise their communities according to what suits them best, see the frustrations which result from a general mood of ‘under siege’ and coping with the changes, without thinking of the quote attributed to Aimé Césaire about genocide by substitution.
If you’ve ever been a daddy’s girl, and your daddy was an emigré and a patriot, you will recognise the story of a child reared on tales of her father’s homeland, and whose grown-up desire to protect it from destruction is as creative as it is mobilising.
I needed Open Bethlehem to understand some things which had long been on my periphery, but which I had struggle to fully grasp. It’s not only a film made by a girl, and a Palestinian girl at that. It’s a film about reconnecting with your hometown, your roots and yourself. A film about having the courage to be who you are called to be, even when riches, glory, or just a quiet and long life are clearly visible on a different path from your own.
Thus Open Bethlehem is quite a film. Amidst the foreign frenemies, the extinguished lights, and the hopelessness of creativity in the face of absolute military oppression, Leila Sansour weaves a tale of those willing to speak out.
Rachel’s Tomb, for example, is so named for the matriarch of Israel whose bones are said to lay just next to Bethlehem. The favourite wife of Jacob/Israel and mother 2 of the twelve tribes, including Joseph’s of the multicoloured coat fame, for several millenia lay at the heart of the town. The wall means it is no longer part of Bethlehem the residents explain, heartbroken. As the settlements encroach hope dies daily.
Speaking on oft-forbidden cameras, people of Bethlehem use their fingers, to point out where the wall is being constructed, where they live, and how exactly its completion will irrevocably alter their façon de vivre. If only to honour their bravery this film is worth watching.
The screening was followed by a simple call to action: visit Bethlehem. Get a Bethlehem Passport – they’re open to everyone who wants one. Bethlehem is a pretty coastal town with an incredible history. Why would you not?
I won’t lie, I’ve never really fancied a trip to anyplace near a war zone, but having survived mid-‘security crisis’ Kenya and the sight of a UN tank in Haiti, I reckon Bethlehem could be awesome. It’s certainly sunnier than London at this time of year, it looks gorgeous and it’s definitely got an interesting history…
Viewing Open Bethlehem the film is step one. Answering the call to action contributes to achieving the film’s missing Happy Ending, which a lifetime digesting Hollywood formula has primed many of us to desire.
Bethlehem: To Open or Let Close?
Wherever you may find yourself this time of year, Merry Christmas!