Giving The Settlers A Human Face


The West Bank lies half a world away from the white bread setting of "The Stepford Wives." But like the robotic Connecticut housewives of the 1975 sci-fi thriller, the female protagonists of Ruth Walk’s new documentary, "The Settlers," move about in blissful oblivion.

Through saccharine smiles, the women Walk profiles profess to willfully ignore the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who surround their tiny enclave at Tel Rumeida, the ancient site of biblical Hebron and home to seven settler families.

Bracha, a 10-year resident of Tel Rumeida, waters the plants outside her kitchen window and looks out over the hills and homes of Hebron. "It’s only a shame that it’s full of Arabs," the mother of 12 says, wistfully, as she turns to finish her housework.

The reverie is unbroken, even as she sends her children to school in guarded busses or points out bullet holes in the kitchen wall and children’s bedroom.

"Their composure was the most frightening [thing] to me," Walk told The Jewish Week over a double espresso at a cafÈ near her Midtown hotel. In two years of filming, Walk said her subjects never exposed a chink in their "fanatic determination" to remain on land they deem holy, impervious to the toll on their neighbors or their fellow Israeli citizens. "They’re so blind!" she said.

The filmmaker, 37, is in New York this week for the U.S. theatrical premiere of "The Settlers," which opens Jan.15 at Film Forum (see review on page 36).

Walk first portrayed Tel Rumeida in a short film for Israeli TV. Having gained access to the usually media-wary settler community, Walk said she felt a responsibility to introduce Israeli audiences to the relatively unknown, yet highly influential group. "What they are doing is affecting all of our lives," Walk said of the settlers. "The point was, I must show who they are, what they think."

From the early months of 1999 through the outbreak of the current intifada in 2000, she followed her subjects as they cleaned and cooked, read psalms and prayed, attended protest rallies and holiday celebrations – always under guard of omnipresent troops.

One woman takes drawing lessons in a neighboring settlement. Another accompanies her daughter’s flute playing on the piano. "I wanted to show them as human beings, not as a political issue," Walk said. "It would have been very easy to show them as monsters."

Instead, Walk portrays the women of Tel Rumeida as dreamers in the thrall of a surreal vision.

A second-generation Israeli, Walk graduated from Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in 1993. Her early documentaries often dealt with people at society’s extremes: a battered woman fleeing her husband, a male prostitute, a boy who was assaulted in his Nahariya classroom. Still, Walk referred to "The Settlers" as "the most difficult documentary I have ever made."

Had she foreseen the emotional anguish she experienced in making the film, "I would not have done it," said Walk, who is now at work on a film about Golda Meir.