The People and the Land
Iris Zaki’s “Unsettling” looks deeply into the people at the heart of the lands most affected by the Israeli-Palestine debate. A self-confessed “leftie”, the filmmaker uses her first feature-length documentary as a social experiment, highlighting the tensions and experiences of citizens from the Israeli West Bank settlement of Tekoa through the more personal approach of one-to-one interviews.
The film begins with the director laying down her purpose and challenges for the project and even admitting her fears of not even getting enough content to fill the feature. However, once sat down with willing volunteers, Zaki is not afraid to challenge the views of those villagers comfortable enough (or not so comfortable enough) to join her. She slowly looks at the layers and barriers of each interviewee to uncover their true emotions and political opinions.
We get perspectives and become engaged in intelligent political discussions. “Unsettling” is a documentary about the people rather than the unrest and it is unique through its presentation of an educated auteur assured in her political views. Each conversation brings about different questions that question us especially “Where is Israeli diversity?” If other countries can manage a multicultural society, why can’t Israel? This is a pertinent question, the answer to which still eluding us.
There is methodical pacing that comes with a series of in-depth discussions about such political content. The feature moves from interview to interview, interjecting each dialogue with prolonged scenic shots displaying life in the West Bank and gorgeous vast landscapes. It is this fluidity that makes watching this a tiring job when we consider the limited number of interviewees and the fact that each conversation is conducted in exactly the same location. One subject breaks this mold by giving a powerful and emotional account of the moment she was assaulted and stabbed by a young Palestinian boy and she gives an astonishing explanation of how she grew to forgive her attacker. But moments like this are rare. The film’s content is vitally important but a wider variety in the portrayal of this investigation would certainly have helped put across the film’s message more critically.
There is a lot of tension when filmmaker Zaki arrives in the Jewish settlement of Tekoa to make the film. We can expect even more tension when the pro-Israel audiences see that she begins her film with a text indicating that “approximately 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli occupation.” It’s a choice of words that’s been contested by Israeli government who declare the West Bank as “disputed territory”.
A few very composed shots open the documentary to show the small place of life in a bubble, both geographically and socially. It is a peaceful space for the population of four thousand. What we hear, though, is a man off-screen complaining about on-screen representation of Israel; he hates the potential of a left wing filmmaker making a film there because “leftists are typically anti-Israel and anti-settler.” The set-up outside a coffee shop is simple: chairs, a table, cameras for shot-reverse-shot, and cameras observing from afar. The director uses thirty days to capture the experience of a lefty moving to a settlement and her interactions with its inhabitants.
The film is pretty emotionally exhausting for the filmmaker. A couple of weeks in, she realizes that she doesn’t fit in here, it’s a challenge, but she’ll have a film by the end of it all. And so she does, and it’s a fascinating film. Not many people were willing to talk to her but those who do bring unique perspectives to the table. Everybody has been affected by the situation between the two nations in some sort of way so every conversation is insightful in providing the various perspectives of a settler.
Zaki’s presence was polarizing from the outset, and she refuses to mince her words . The film’s tensest exchange, between Zaki and one of the community’s most openly rightwing residents, proves depressingly futile, with the latter using the historic mistreatment of Jews to justify her complete nationalism.
Zaki does better at finding common ground with two former members of the Hilltop Youth – a religious-nationalist movement known for violent pro-Israel activism – who both recognize that they were essentially brainwashed as children. A real sense of hope is seen in Michal, who saw her stabbing as a message from God that Israelis must “respect the foreigners living among us… and renounce this sense of entitlement”. She talks movingly about members of her assailant’s community visiting her to express their shame and sorrow, and explains how, by making alliances with their Palestinian neighbors, settlers the way towards peaceful co-existence might come about.