Ask yourself this: what do you know about the city of Bethlehem? For many, the honest answer would be “not much”. As one young American man asks in Open Bethlehem, the new film by documentary film-maker Leila Sansour: “Bethlehem, isn’t that somewhere in Egypt?”
Bethlehem is, in fact, a Palestinian city. With a mere 25,000 inhabitants, it is located in the central part of the West Bank, around six miles south of Jerusalem. In biblical history, Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born, and to this day the city is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
Bethlehem is also a powerful symbol of community cohesion across religious lines. Christians, Muslims and Jews have co-existed here for centuries. In the 7th century, the second Muslim Caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, protected Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity due to its importance as a Christian shrine. The city’s demographic composition has varied since, but Ottoman tax records show that the Christian and Muslim populations were of equal size by the mid-16th century. Jewish pilgrims also used Bethlehem as resting grounds on their travels to neighbouring Jerusalem.
Because of its rich religious past, Bethlehem houses a variety of ancient holy buildings. Churches and mosques stand side by side, giving the old city an historical allure that continues to draw masses of tourists from all over the world.
Bethlehem’s enchanting magnetism was one of the factors that drew film-maker Leila Sansour to return to her paternal homeland. Leila grew up in the city, where her father was the founder of Bethlehem University and a much-loved pillar of the community. As part of a youthful rebellion against the town she then found too small and provincial, Leila left as a teenager to see the world and study philosophy. As fate would have it she fell in love, and eventually settled in the UK with her husband, British novelist Nicholas Blincoe.
Meanwhile, big changes were taking place in Bethlehem. In the early 2000s, the Israeli government began constructing a long concrete barrier designed to separate the Palestinian population in the West Bank from the Jewish-only Israeli settlements there. The wall was to be built right through parts of Bethlehem. Its construction would end up encircling the ancient city and have a big impact on civilian life.
Intrigued by the changes the barrier would bring to her hometown, Leila decided to return with her video camera to document its construction. This would prove to be a life-changing decision; instead of the planned one-year stay, she ended up launching Open Bethlehem, a family-driven media liberation campaign for her city, which took over her life for the next several years.
With the help of her cousin Carol, Leila documented every step of the campaign. The result is over 700 hours of footage, now assembled into a 90-minute feature film. The film shows Leila fighting for project funding, developing an innovative “Bethlehem passport” scheme which grants owners citizenship of the ancient city, and eventually bringing her campaign to international audiences with support from among others the Archbishop of Canterbury, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmund Tutu and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
The film also portrays the devastating effects the barrier has had on Bethlehem’s communities. During its construction, the footage shows local families being expelled from their homes and forced to watch as their olive trees are cut down and their houses demolished. On completion, the wall cut the urban population off from 70 percent of their agricultural lands. Residents must now apply for military permits in order to cross to the other side to use medical services, visit their family members or go to work. In fact, many residents are forced to queue by the wall from around 3am in order to get to work on time.
Personal stories are a big part of the film. For example, we meet an old man who was forced to abandon his land and his shop where he had worked for more than 40 years after the barrier separated them from his house. Furthermore, Leila interviews a family whose house is literally boxed in by the barrier on three sides; the wall was extended into their neighbourhood in order to make the religious building Rachel’s Tomb part of the Israeli settlements.
The aesthetics of the wall are also striking. It is 8 meter (26 ft) high; twice as high as the Berlin wall. Stretching more than 700 kilometres (430 miles), it is a mass of monotone grey concrete with barbed wires and black towers, complete with fortress-like military checkpoints. It stands in stark contrast to the traditional buildings, brown earth and green plants that mark its surroundings. Nearby are Israeli-only highways built on suspended concrete pillars, circling through the traditional, picturesque landscape.
Although more focused on the present than the past, Sansour’s film gives viewers some historical context into Bethlehem by revealing old footage from the city’s past. We see, for example, the effects on the city of being overrun with refugees after the 1948 Israel war. Footage from 1967 shows the Israeli army raising the Israeli flag after overtaking the city, and the building of Jewish-only settlements which soon followed.
Despite what one may expect, however, Open Bethlehem is not an angry piece of film. It does not aim to vilify or degrade, but rather to describe and explain based on a shared local experience. It is a testament to the power of the personal story, created by one woman with a dream and a camera.
As such, the film does not deal to any great extent with the Israeli argument for building the wall; that it is for protection against Palestinian suicide bombers. One could ask, though, if that was its purpose (as opposed to being part of a territorial land grab), why it was built well inside established Palestinian territory and not along the internationally recognised border.
The film also doesn’t address the fact that the Christian population of Bethlehem has now reduced to around 30 percent. Certain Western and Israeli commentators have controversially attributed this to an alleged increase in violence and intimidation from the Muslim population – a claim that has been repeatedly and vehemently denied by Bethlehem’s Christian groups, which rather blame the exodus on Israeli occupation, confiscation of land, restrictions on movement and violent crackdowns on nonviolent protests.
In a 2012 letter to the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Palestinian group Kairos said:
“In the case of Bethlehem, for instance, it is in fact the rampant construction of Israeli settlements, the chokehold imposed by the separation wall and the Israeli government’s confiscation of Palestinian land that has driven many Christians to leave. At present, a mere 13 percent of Bethlehem-area land is left to its Palestinian inhabitants.”
Looking ahead, Open Bethlehem asks what the future will hold for Bethlehem’s children. Growing up, they will know only a divided Bethlehem defined by its concrete wall, not the historical town as it was with its traditional architecture created through centuries of multi-faith coexistence. As the film ends, it encourages all viewers to travel to Bethlehem to experience the city and its history for themselves.
Open Bethlehem is now released to UK audiences, and will be taken to the U.S. later this year. To get more information about the film, contact Leila, or arrange your own screening, visit www.openbethlehem.org.