Writing on the day of the first U.S. presidential campaign debate, it is impossible for me not to note that political polarization seems to be a global phenomenon with potentially toxic consequences. That is hardly an original observation, but after watching Shimon Dotan’s superb new documentary “The Settlers,” which will be shown in this year’s New York Film Festival, one is acutely aware of the possibility of a society tearing itself to pieces when its political differences have destroyed any shared goals and dreams. A pessimist who sees “The Settlers” might understandably come away the film convinced that the future of the State of Israel will be terrifyingly brief.
Romanian-born but raised and educated in Israel, Dotan brings a carefully balanced perspective to the poised-on-a-knife-edge issue of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank (right down to a brief but spirited discussion of the nomenclature used to designate the embattled areas). His film, which at 110 minutes feels brisk but never sketchy, traces the history of the Jewish state with particular attention to the rise of the right-wing, ultra-religious community that is at the heart of the settler movement. Whether in interviews with contemporary participants or in deftly chosen archive material, he its members a fair platform from which to make their case.
At the same time, Dotan presents an unflinching picture of a highly organized movement whose public face of determined passion belies its brilliant manipulation of the Israeli political system. Repeatedly, the competing settler groups work their opponents and allies alike in a complex dance of passive aggression, albeit with the emphasis more on aggression. By the time the film, whose narrative structure is almost strictly chronological, reaches the first intifada, even the most unsympathetic viewers will have developed a certain grudging admiration for the political skills on display. Ideologues like Benny Katzover and Yehuda Etzion play the “foxy grandpa” card with real charm, at least until the subject of violence committed by the Jewish Underground arises.
Perhaps that is the moment when both the film and its subjects take an even darker, more disturbing turn. Etzion is unguarded, even amused, by discussion of his activities as a dynamiter responsible for attacks on several Palestinian mayors in 1980. Dotan devotes little screen time to the Palestinians themselves — there is one brief shot of one of the victims, now a double-amputee, negotiating the front steps of his home — with the result that the settler leaders condemn their own acts by the unwarranted frivolousness with which they describe them.
After that, the parade of terrorist acts committed by Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir and, most recently the “Hilltop Youth” become their own bleeding testimony to the dangers these people pose to the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. When the pimply face of the Hilltop Youth is represented by Hanamel Dorfman, their 22-year-old leader — proclaiming the goal of a Jewish nation that will stretch “from the Nile to the Euphrates,” a sentiment supported by one of the group’s rabbinic advisers — it becomes abundantly clear that whatever the roots of early groups like Gush Emunim, the current vanguard is violent, fascistic and wildly out of touch with reality.
There have been numerous documentaries that focus on the settlers themselves, some sympathetic but, unsurprisingly, most not. Dotan comes at the material from a strikingly intelligent perspective, allowing the historical record to speak for itself, aided by some brilliant interpretations from a range of academics experts like Moshe Halbertal and Talia Sasson. The result is one of the most edifying and thoughtful films of this kind in many, many years.
Jalal Marsawa, left, and Lamis Ammar in Elite Zexer’s “Sand Storm.” Vered Adir/Courtesy of Kino Lorber
If you are looking to Israeli fiction filmmakers for a more hopeful picture of the nation midway through the second decade of the new millennium, you won’t find it in “Sand Storm,” a debut feature by Elite Zexer currently playing at Film Forum. The slice of Israeli society that “Sand Storm” examines is even smaller and more cloistered than the settlement movement. The writer-director focuses on a small Bedouin community and, most particularly, on the women of one struggling family beset by the kinds of problems that can only occur in a social unit that uneasily combines patriarchal power with female-centered daily life.
Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) is a 42-year-old mother of four girls whose husband Suliman (Haitham Omari) has just taken a much younger second wife. On top of the inevitable tensions that arise from that situation, the couple must also deal with their eldest daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar), who has met and fallen in love with a young man at college, and is determined to flout convention by marrying outside the tribe. Gradually, the centripetal forces brought into play tear the fabric of the family to pieces, with a muted but real ripple effect in the village.
Zexer tells this story in the neo-realist vein that has become, quite appropriately, the default setting for most post-colonial film dramas of the past several decades. Using an exceptional cast of local residents, non-actors, working in their own homes, photographed with lightweight equipment and available light, with a narrative focus on family melodrama, such films have become a global aesthetic given. Zexer, in particular, is enormously skilled in finding a common ground between the universal themes and the unique local realities. “Sand Storm” is an emotionally intense and unflinching look at a small community in which the ties that hold a single family together can all too often become a noose that binds successive generations to the mistakes of the past.
The 54th New York Film Festival runs from Sept. 30-Oct. 16 in Lincoln Center. “The Settlers” is part of the festival’s sidebar “Spotlight on Documentary.” For details go to filmlinc.org. “Sand Storm” is playing at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) through Oct. 11. For information, go to filmforum.org.