Many nonfiction films approach their subjects by way of problem-solving, and whether they’re trying to find the culprit of a murder, bring to light political corruption, expose some of nature’s best kept secrets, or put out calls to action, they seek to leave audience members at ease with themselves. This isn’t the case with Shimon Dotan’s The Settlers, a film so brutally compelling and so lacking in definitive answers that it might as well be the cinematic equivalent of throwing one’s hands up in the air. Dotan took on the task of chronicling a history of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which may have begun after the Six-Day War in 1967, but Dotan proposes were threatening to happen shortly after the end of WWII.
Using archival footage and interviews with survivors and scholars, the filmmaker focuses on the group of rebels led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger in 1968, who against the advice of others, and against the law itself, ventured into Jerusalem beginning a movement that has become the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If at first, one gets the sense that Dotan was aiming to reach a compromise between both sides, it becomes quite clear that this is something unlikely to happen (at least not while he shot the film), and slowly the documentary begins to ooze frustration and unease, which turn it into a visceral cinematic experience.
Hearing the testimony of scholars who rightfully explain the myriad reasons why the settlements go against political treaties and agreements makes one nod in agreement, but similarly listening to women tell stories about how they believe they have a cultural right to Jerusalem, and how they were denied the chance to bury their children in the land of their forefathers, has equal power. To reduce the issue to a battle between religious beliefs would be easy, but as Dotan’s film shows constantly, there are many more interests affected by now. For instance we learn about the real estate boom, and how settlers have built extravagant homes in lands that could any day be taken away from them. Perhaps the idea that once governments see imposing structures on the ground they will simply move on, appears to be the driving force behind some of all the construction.
What Dotan’s film does best is showcase the arrogance of human beings who on each side refuse to engage in terms that would make them equal to the other. We hear of farmers angry about having crops on lands that belong to others, when one of the settlers begins to comment on their disapproval of some of the things they’ve done they are reminded such matters shouldn’t be discussed in front of a camera, and even erudites fail to favor religious devotion, preferring total secularism over a more humane agnosticism. As the world seems to become smaller each day, The Settlers suggests that so does our ability to recognize the humanity in others.