Canadian-Israeli filmmaker and NYU Professor of Political Cinema Shimon Dotan brings us a powerful, and occasionally disconcerting, documentary chronicling the daily lives of those living in Jewish settlements along the West Bank.
If you don’t know much about the history of the region other than simply “It’s pretty tense over there, isn’t it?”, don’t worry. Dotan devotes as much (if not more) time outlining 70 years of Israeli history as he does spending time with the modern settlers themselves. Of course, 70 years of complicated history crammed into 96 minutes isn’t easy to do without some oversimplification and we all know that a filmmaker can make some strategic decisions in terms of what to exclude to fit their agenda. As someone with little more than a superficial understanding of the region’s history, I’m in no position to judge how accurately Dotan summarizes the history. I can only tell you that it felt convincing to me and that I did feel like I learnt a lot.
In the end, a documentary is still a movie and a movie needs a good story. And whether you agree with Dotan’s point of view or not, The Settlers has a great story that it tells extremely well. It shifts expertly from historical context to footage of present-day settlers and back again. Dotan succeeds at making complicated history in a way that feels not only easy to follow even for a layman like me, but gripping enough that I actually enjoyed watching it.
Dotan has a clear point of view of his own but seems eager to give a voice to as many other points of view as he can. He interviews scholars, Palestinian activists, and Israelis living in West Bank settlements and sometimes includes footage of people I am quite sure he strongly disagrees with. But he generally lets them speak without providing his own rebuttal, mostly leaving it up to the audience to reach their own conclusions.
Many of us don’t spend enough time learning about conflicts in the Middle East, partly because it’s a controversial and unpleasant subject without any easy answers. Thankfully, The Settlers is a great place to start the learning process as it is an informative and accessible film.