Open Bethlehem (Operation Bethlehem, Palestine/UAE 2014)

Writer-director Leila Sansour in her battered car.

Writer-director Leila Sansour in her battered car.

Open Bethlehem is a difficult film to write about. It is currently being shown in the UK, supported by various organisations and celebrities. It is planned for a release in North America on the same basis in December 2015. The film shows many important aspects of the history of Palestine and in particular what has happened in the isolated Palestinian city of Bethlehem. I want to support the film in many of its objectives and I was happy to support the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign group which helped to organise the screening. Unfortunately I had problems with the film ‘as a film’ and I fear these may get in the way of its presentation of very important issues and debates.

Leila Sansour is from one of Bethlehem’s most prominent families. Her father Anton Sansour set up Bethlehem University in 1973 in what was previously a Roman Catholic seminary. Leila was born in Russia when her father taught at Moscow University. She lived in Bethlehem during the 1970s and 1980s before leaving to attend universities in France, the UK and Russia. She began work in television for Al Jazheera and in 2002 returned to Bethlehem to make Jeremy Hardy v. The Israeli Army, a documentary about the resistance to the Israeli occupation (and the siege of Bethlehem) seen through the eyes of ‘an ordinary guy’ in the person of a British comedian. Sansour’s strategy in this film and Open Bethlehem has been to use celebrity figures to attract audience attention. She is married to the British novelist Nicholas Blincoe and I was surprised to see the Guardian journalist John Harris popping up in Open Bethlehem. Later on in the film, attracting international figures to Bethlehem becomes the whole point of the project. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leila Sansour returned again to Bethlehem in 2004 intending to film the construction of the Separation Wall intended to keep the illegal Jewish settlers and the whole state of Israel ‘safe’ from Palestinian ‘incursions’. As she explains, Bethlehem is a particularly sensitive city partly because of its international status as the birthplace of Christ and because it is located relatively close to Jerusalem in part of the West Bank with good water resources. The Occupation forces have more or less isolated Bethlehem from the remainder of the West Bank. In the event, Sansour was persuaded to stay in Bethlehem by her only remaining relative, her cousin Carol who was still in the family house (after her father died, the rest of Sansour’s family left the country – like much of the Christian population of Palestine over the last twenty years). Her filming lost its focus and she became involved in an ambitious project to promote Bethlehem to the outside world, part of which involved a tourist campaign to persuade visitors to the Church of Nativity to stay overnight and enjoy other aspects of Bethlehem life, instead of coming for an hour on an Israeli bus and, as she says, “barely noticing that they are in Palestine”. The central plank of the project is a ‘Bethlehem Passport’ which announces that the bearer is a ‘citizen of an ancient international city’. These passports were sent to the Pope and other church leaders, politicians and celebrities. For a while in 2005-6 it looked like the project was going to be a success but eventually it lost momentum and funding and eventually Carol too left Bethlehem. Leila Sansour decided at this crisis point to stay on and to try to finish the film. I suspect that it was funding from the Emirates (an important production partner for recent Palestinian films) and various international arts agencies that has enabled the film to be completed and released.

The finished film is strongest in its depiction of the building of the Wall around and through the city of Bethlehem and the terrible impact on the lives of Palestinians. It is also useful in presenting the history of Bethlehem itself and of the economic problems of a city largely dependent on tourism now being effectively strangled by the occupation forces. There are two major weaknesses for me. One is technical. The material for the film was shot over several years, mainly I think on various different video formats and then combined with archive material of varying quality. I’m used to the way modern documentary films either crop or stretch Academy ratio archive film. I’m afraid we’ve rather lost that battle, but in this film there also appears to be some footage which was shot in a wider format than 16:9 and then ‘squeezed’ to fit. This looks very odd and I can’t explain it. Overall the force of the arguments should help to overcome these difficulties but I think they are compounded by what I thought were sometimes unsuitable graphics and music. More important though is the overall approach of the ‘personal story’. I know this is a feature of documentary films that is sometimes thought to make them more palatable for audiences, especially in the US (e.g. see Five Broken Cameras). However, when the personal story is that of the writer-director and effectively the ‘star’ of the film it does create a great deal of pressure. I felt in this case that it would have been better to have had at least one independent, ‘impartial’ creative input – ideally as director. As it is, there are aspects of the story that still puzzle me. For instance, the Christian communities in Bethlehem were traditionally at the centre of the city’s life, making up more than half the population but latest figures suggest that they might now be less than 20%. Why have they left? Is it simply that they are often the wealthiest families, able to emigrate? Are the Israelis purposely trying to drive them out? Are there other reasons? The three main churches, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian, remain but I wasn’t sure watching the film which church the Sansours belonged to (it became clear in my post-screening research). I confess that the presence of so many celebrity figures in the film also tended to put me off. Leila Sansour does say at one point that she didn’t want to appear as “just another tourist” in Bethlehem but I would have liked to know more about the ‘ordinary people’ of the city glimpsed in some footage (I was interested in the crafts people who make the various devotional objects sold to tourists). The irony is that the ‘Open Bethlehem’ Project eventually ‘failed’ because it could not sustain funding from international bodies. Initial funding from a Swiss body was granted on condition that the project was to be about tourism and not ‘politics’. Of course, tourism and politics are inextricably connected in Bethlehem and I think that the film could have explored this more than it did. It might also have contextualised Bethlehem’s plight in the politics of the Occupation of all of Palestine.

So, there is useful material here and I do hope the film changes minds or at least informs audiences. But there are other Palestinian documentaries that deserve the exposure this film is getting and I hope they will be seen too.

The Open Bethlehem website indicates how the project has been revitalised and it also provides a listing of screenings across the UK in the weeks to come.

Some of the problems with the material are visible in this trailer:

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