The Settlers


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Settlers - the first film of its kind to offer a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, The Settlers is a historical overview, geopolitical study, and intimate look at the people at the core of the most daunting challenge facing Israel and the international community today.
"All in all, this is a troubling but well-presented and thorough examination of the settler conundrum facing Israel today." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There is no shortage of documentaries emanating from Israel and Palestine and it's testimony to Shimon Dotan's skills as a filmmaker that he always seems to find a fresh, but crucial, angle. Back in 2006, his film Hot House stepped inside prison to consider the mindset of those incarcerated there - from extremists to the more moderate.

Now, in a film that should be considered essential viewing for those interested in the thorny questions of sovereignty, how to achieve peace and the spin of semantics in the region, he examines a question that many other films have touched on down the years - what is a settler?

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In brief, these are Israeli citizens who have built homes and communities within the West Bank, frequently leading to conflict with the existing Palestinian residents. More fully, the answer is, unsurprisingly, multifaceted and Dotan does an admirable job of burrowing deep into the archive to track the notion back to its origins and examine the many complex drivers - from ideology to economics - that have brought us to where we are today.

Dotan approaches the issue chronologically, considering the origins of conflict with the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. He goes on to look at the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967, which led to the emergence of a small group of ideologues, encouraged by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who believed they were "pioneers" who would hasten the arrival of the messianic age by settling outside the Green Line, but the film asks now, almost 50 years later and with hundreds of thousands of settlers in the West Bank, whether they are leading the nation to "divine redemption or apartheid".

The majority of the film is focused on the settlers themselves, allowing them to explain their position in a manner which frequently also serves to erode it. The picture of the more extreme end of the viewpoint is not a pretty one, with racism often mixed in with the idelogy. Particularly chilling is the sight of one man announcing his racism with relish or another telling his children about how much fun they'll have beating up Arabs once they are old enough, but equally pernicious is the view of one of one of the leading lights of the settler movement, Yehuda Etzion, who suggests that Arabs will be "guests" on the land "but will have no political rights".

This documentary runs deep, with Dotan showing this is far from the end of the story. Mixed in with these issues is the tacit support of Israel itself, with many of the settlers deliberately attempting to get the state involved in order to further their expansion aims, while the government under various leaders has been shown to be happy to give backdoor support. Perhaps surprisingly, there is also a subsidiary tale of American evangelists who flock to the region in their hundreds in the fervent belief that they must help the settlers because it is the will of God.

What emerges is a sort-of snowball effect - the core of ideologues have picked up any number of additional people as they've gone along, in particular, more recently, those that simply see moving outside the Green Line as an opportunity to get their hands on prime real estate for less. There's also an issue of generations, as children born into the settlements are also born into the life chosen by their parents, with some seeming to lurch to even further extremes.

All in all, this is a troubling but well-presented and thorough examination of the settler conundrum facing Israel today. Dotan says he made the film to "invoke a dialogue which we do not have" - he should certainly achieve that aim although the conversation is likely to be a very heated one with few easy answers.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2016
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A comprehensive examination of the settlement movement in the West Bank.

Director: Shimon Dotan

Writer: Oron Adar, Shimon Dotan

Year: 2016

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: France, Canada, Israel, Germany

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