Martyr Street

Martyr Street


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The modern world seems to be never far away from conflict. Turn on your TV or radio and, at virtually any hour of the day or night, there will be reports of people dying in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and a host of other countries. The media has become almost punch-drunk with the death toll. Reports of the dead have dropped down the running order, replaced instead with tales of homegrown political infighting.

It's quite frightening how quickly we seem to acclimatise to death on a mass scale and so Shelley Saywell's decision to centre her documentary on two children and their families and friends in Hebron was a wise one. By focussing on the individual, she personalises the casualties and makes a powerful statement in the process.

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Hebron is just one of the towns affected by the Palestine/Israel conflict. It is a the alleged burial place of Abraham - making it a sacred place for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. For centuries the faiths lived together in peace, until trouble escalated in 1929 - when violence forced out the Jewish population.

Shelley Saywell becomes an accidental voyeur of five years conflict in the city when, on a visit to make another documentary, she finds herself fascinated by the lives of two girls Najilah and Neria living on opposite side of Martyr Street, which winds up the city to Abraham's tomb. Her film crew are there at the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000 - an uprising that is to spiral out of control. Four years on - "there are no families without martyrs".

Like an anti-pilgrim's progress we make this dreadful journey alongside Saywell - from a time of tension and fear to one of anger and hate.

Jewish settlers, convinced they were on a 'holy mission' moved back to Hebron in 1979. Twenty years on, Neria is one of their children. Initially, she is merely scared of the Palestinians, fearful of their beliefs and a staunch advocate for her parents' position regarding their right to be in the city, "I want Hebron to be ours," she says. Palestinian schoolgirl Najilah, too, is more afraid than hateful. She doesn't talk to Jews, she says, she's frightened that they might hurt her and runs if she sees one.

To try to ease the situation, Israel sent soldiers, who merely lit the blue touch paper while the world stood well back.

Saywell, never loses sight of the roots of each faith. She intercuts events with passages of scripture which, unfortunately, have an ironic, hollow ring. Is it the fault of the faiths, Saywell asks or is Abraham spinning in his grave?

Both the girls seem level-headed, the families pleasant, if fearful, and yet as the years pass by there is a growing sense of hatred. Innocents are killed, a perfectly reasonable family man says he can sympathise with people who bomb Palestinian schools, Matryr street, once a bustling hive of activity stands almost empty with Stars of David - a cruel and chilling echo of Nazi atrocities in the second world war - daubed on the doors of Palestinian homes.

Although Saywell's voice-over can feel a little preachy at times - this is symptomatic of the very personal nature of the film - and she retains a remarkably even-handed approach, speaking not only to the settlers but to former soldiers and Israelis, many of whom feel the Jewish settlers in Hebron have committed a personal folly.

This hard-hitting - and, in truth, quite depressing - documentary is the perfect companion piece to Yoav Shamir's 5 Days. In it, he contests that in order to prevent bloodshed - as with the Israel pull-out from the Gaza Strip - you must first try to understand and empathise with your enemy. Here, Saywell shows us exactly what happens when these lines of communication break down.

Five years on Najilah and Neria are hardened in their trauma and extremist in their views. This is true horror of Saywell's message. She is asking us to forget the geo-political scheme and look at the individuals, spiralling into neverending conflict for the want of a little understanding.

Reviewed on: 13 Sep 2006
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Five years of Hebron conflict seen through the eyes of children.

Director: Shelley Saywell

Writer: Shelley Saywell

Starring: n/a

Year: 2006

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Canada

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If you like this, try:

5 Days
The Inner Tour