Open Bethlehem. Directed by Leila Sansour. Palestine, 2014
Towards the end of her new documentary Open Bethlehem (Palestine, 2014), filmmaker Leila Sansour discusses her aim to make Palestine “more important and palatable” to the White House and to US citizens. She stands outside the gated capitol of the United States, knowing that the future of her hometown of Bethlehem is directly connected with policies that are in some ways more significantly determined, not in Ramallah, but in Washington. Sansour’s ambition extends a long lineage of Palestinian documentaries that have appealed for broad international support since the Nakba of 1948.
Establishing a place for Palestinian voices became more urgent after the Naksa of 1967 and Black September of 1970 as pan-Arabism became a less viable advocate for Palestine. Indeed, Egyptian director Tewfik Saleh’s Syrian-funded adaptation of the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani’s Rijal fi ash-Shams/Men in the Sun (1962) into the narrative feature Al-makhdu’un/The Dupes (1973) suggested the precarious state of statelessness amidst the divisiveness of the Cold War. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) established its Department of Photography in 1968 to communicate Palestinian perspectives to the outside world. The need to be visible, as Edward W. Said observed, has been a primary concern among Palestinians against erasure pursuant to Zionist slogans such as “A land without people for a people without a land.” More recently, Palestinian filmmakers have produced narrative and documentary features and shorts, as well as experimental media, that often contradict Israeli propaganda that consolidates myths of Israeli exceptionalism in the Middle East, particularly in terms of democracy and LGBT rights. For many audiences, particularly ones in Canada and the United States, Palestine remains not only invisible, as it may have for their parents and grandparents, but also illegible.
Sansour works to render Palestinians legible as small-business owners and family members—that is, as people with hopes, dreams, and aspirations despite multiple generations of unfavorable political circumstances—to European and North American audiences. In this regard, she departs somewhat from conventions in earlier documentaries that circulated in international film festivals, where they found sympathetic audiences who shared the experience of colonialism and dispossession. Notable in this approach were Moustafa Abu Ali’s Bil Rawh wal-damm/With Blood and Soul (Palestine ,1971) and Laysa lahum wujud/They Do Not Exist (Palestine, 1974), which articulated a populist heroism of the fedayeen (“those who sacrifice themselves”) to serve a revolution, and thus resonated with tri-continental movements for political, economic, and cultural decolonization. This approach to documentary was also evident in other anti-colonial and anti-imperialist films, such as La hora de la horno /The Hour of the Furnaces (Argentina, 1968; dir. Grupo Cine Liberación) and Waqai sanawat al-djamr/Chronicles of the Years of Embers (Algeria, 1975; dir. Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina).
By the 1980s, the Palestinian Cinema Institute—a later incarnation of the PLO’s Department of Photography—along with the film entities of other Palestinian organizations, turned towards documenting the experiences of refugees to counter dominant narratives in foreign media that constructed an “Arab-Israeli conflict” based on “ancient” ethnic or religious difference rather than on contemporary political dynamics. Although sometimes cynically dismissed as a discourse of victimhood, films such as Khadijeh Habashneh’s Children Nevertheless (Palestine, 1979/1984) examined a different subject and took a very different approach to communicating Palestinian perspectives to the world at large. Habashneh examined the plight of orphans and refugees, as did later films by Mai Masri, such as Children of Fire (United Kingdom, 1990), Children of Shatila (Lebanon, 1998) and Hlam al-manfa/Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (Palestine, 2001), thereby shifting the discourse from tri-continental anti-colonial struggle to common (rather than universalized) humanitarian causes. Since documentaries on the power of armed struggle and the plight of refugees have largely failed to resonate with Canadian and US audiences, Sansour takes a different approach to convey the realities of foreign occupation. She focuses on tourism, heritage, and religion, as a means of locating a transnational commons.
Returning after a twenty-year absence to Bethlehem, Sansour sees visible signs and senses psychological ones of the effects of occupation. Once vibrant farms and shops that supported entire families are scarcely able to sustain the few Palestinians who remain. In one of the first scenes of her return, Sansour’s cousin Carla shows her bullet holes in the interior walls of her house. She imagines ways to counter narratives of “Palestinian inhospitality” that are reproduced daily by Israeli settlers. Ethical outrage over continued Israeli violence, however, is only one of the documentary’s strategies. To create a space for open dialogue in places like Canada and the United States, which have been reluctant to come to terms with their own direct and indirect colonial histories, Sansour frames Bethlehem’s history of domination by foreigners—Ottomans, Britons, and now Israelis—with elements of occasional humor. After a century under Ottoman rule, another dish was added to the menu, she offers in a voiceover that conveys Palestinian patience and resilience. Her poetic turns of phrase and ways of seeing the world provide a reenergizing respite from Israeli, Canadian, and U.S. talking points that distort and frequently invert the realities of occupation.
Sansour’s film narrates the inception of the Open Bethlehem project as one such approach to communicating a legible narrative about Palestine to foreign audiences. She weaves her own personal history with the collective history of Palestinians in a documentary form that engages audiences who might not ordinarily be interested, much less sympathetic, with Palestinian causes. At the same time, she does not completely omit images that may have proven less “palatable” to certain North American audiences. The history of a Palestinian nation dispossessed of its land is conveyed through voiceover and archival footage, but it is also conveyed in personal stories, including her own decision to return to Bethlehem after years of living abroad. She intended to stay only a short period of time but found herself needing to stay longer. Although autobiographical content in a documentary can sometimes overshadow social analysis, resulting in documentarians becoming iconic personalities, Sansour includes only select details from her own life to highlight ways that individuals can come together to become communities and thereby make a difference. She situates her own story in relation to her father’s story. As a professor at Bethlehem University, his students helped ignite the 1987–1993 Intifada against Israeli occupation. More personally, he gave Sansour her first movie camera, and she includes images taken by herself as a child with that very camera in Open Bethlehem. Personal archive intermixes with official footage, as Sansour collected materials on Bethlehem that now constitute one of the largest archives of material on the city which she plans to develop into an online platform.
Over the course of the documentary’s production, Sansour began to notice more acutely ways that Israeli settlements and “security” walls divide and conquer the West Bank, thereby making life so unbearable that even her cousin, who remained in Palestine after other family members emigrated, leaves Bethlehem. As with other indigenous nations, for Palestinians to remain in Palestine is a means of asserting that existence is resistance, which is something that Israel well understands. Its settlers occupy “abandoned” areas, villages, houses, groves, and other property. Occupation threatens to erase a little more of Palestine each day. Sansour meets, for example, Khalid, whose life’s work of establishing and maintaining a popular Bethlehem restaurant is increasingly eroded by Israeli eight-meter–high walls, which are segregating the restaurant from the city. At one point, Khalid’s clientele consists mostly of the construction workers who erect Israel’s walls designed to dismantle the community. The Israeli occupation of Palestine destabilizes Bethlehem, a city that historically has been home to Christians, Jews and Muslims, and welcoming to outsiders.
Today, explicit forms of propaganda are often less effective than implicit forms, such as ones promoting tourism and technology. Open Bethlehem redirects “Holy Land” tourism targeted at Christians from Europe and North America by Israeli operators. In partnership with the Bethlehem Governorate, the Open Bethlehem project invites everyone to become a citizen of Bethlehem. Presently, the only tourists who see any of Bethlehem arrive on Israeli buses and depart quickly after an hour-long stop to see only the Church of the Nativity before returning to spend money at Israeli shops, hotels, and restaurants elsewhere. Sansour wants to invite tourists to stay longer and witness everyday life, hoping to shift perceptions of Palestine by helping the tourism industry upon which Bethlehem depends since other industries have been undermined by colonialism. Issued by the city of Bethlehem, symbolic passports grant anyone full access as a counterpart to the restricted access that is Israeli business practice and policy. Passports are also symbolic of the right to movement that is denied to many Palestinians, such as those with only passports issued by the Palestinian Authority. The Bethlehem passport functions according to an entirely different logic than the color-coded identification cards, license plates, and other official documents that segregate Israelis and Palestinians within the occupied territories. Everyone is equal. Israeli Jewish and Jewish American tourists are welcomed with the same hospitality as Christians and Muslims, as Arabs and non-Arabs. Passports enlist ambassadors for the city that already include Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter. Sansour’s hope is to transform Bethlehem into a model for nonviolent cooperation between Israel and Palestine.
Throughout the film, Sansour struggles with great dignity and ingenuity to put forward another possibility than those that have been offered by politicians. Her little red car survives the ten years of filming, its frequent breakdowns becoming occasions for furthering social connections with a city where she had planned to live only one year. Like Michel Khleifi and Eyal Sivan’s Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (Belgium/France/Germany/UK, 2004), Open Bethlehem is a road movie of sorts. Unlike the contact zones, which frequently seem to function like potential conflict zones, that Khleifi and Sivan encounter along the border proposed by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 recommending the partition of Mandatory Palestine, Sansour drives her red car throughout Bethlehem, partitioned by Israeli walls and checkpoints, in an effort to mobilize solidarity rather than map different perceptions. The process was very difficult, as she makes clear in the film, yet she continued forward. At one point, when she was about to end the project, it snowed in Palestine, an event that she reads as a message from her deceased father encouraging her to persevere. The film’s title evokes a history of films about hopeful struggles against occupation that date to Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta (Italy, 1945), often known in English simply as Open City, a landmark film of Italian neorealism that marked the role of the resistance against fascism in mid-twentieth–century Europe. Rossellini’s film is evoked in films about other occupations, including Eddie Romero’s Manila, Open City (Philippines, 1968) and Samir Habchi’s Doukhan bila nar/Beirut Open City (Egypt/Lebanon, 2008). Palestinian cities remain closed by foreign occupation, which includes the humiliation and violence of curfews, checkpoints, and searches.
In a small way, Sansour hopes the film can offer a counter to Israel’s well-financed hasbara programs, including an embassy staff member in London dedicated fulltime to contacting Christian priests, as well as the organized pro-Israel/anti-Palestine student groups at most Canadian and US universities. Although Open Bethlehem might not achieve interfaith solidarity between Palestinians and evangelical Christian organizations in North America such as Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the documentary and its broader campaign can move around more than a half century of misconceptions about Palestine and Palestinians to advocate for more just foreign policies. The Open Bethlehem campaign aspires to encourage US Christians to join US Jews who have become increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s discriminatory practices and half century of occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. A campaign has been launched on the Dubai-based crowdsourcing platform Afflamnah to support the film’s North American release at Christmas 2015, which will capitalize on the city of Bethlehem’s annual celebration of three Christmases—Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian. The release for North American audiences will extend the film’s inroads in the United Kingdom in 2014.
Sansour’s way of telling Bethlehem’s story hopes to make Palestine both visible and legible—or, in her own words, “more important and palatable”—to Canadian and US Christians as they become aware of ways that their complicity with such policies, including silence and inaction, endangers the rights and wellbeing of Palestinians, some of whom are their fellow Christians. Open Bethlehem makes visible a larger community of Jews, Christians, and Muslims that has been erased and silenced over the past century, one that had thrived for centuries. Sansour hopes that the city of Bethlehem’s uncertain future as its residents struggle to survive the strangulation of checkpoints and walls, speaks with urgency to people living far from the daily horrors and humiliations of foreign military occupation. Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech at Cairo University may have offered hope a different kind of relationship between the United States and Palestine when it was delivered in 2009, but it is clear that the audacity of such hope will remain unfulfilled without widespread, grassroots action by US citizens. Open Bethlehem appeals to transnational alliances to recover a commons between observant and nonobservant followers of the three Abrahamic religions that claim the city of Bethlehem as sacred, in an appeal for actual peace rather than the unfair conditions of “tolerance” that have often made occupation illegible.