Open Bethlehem – Film Review

By James Mackney @JimMackney

Open Bethlehem is as much Leila Sansour’s film as it is Bethlehem’s. It chronicles Leila’s mission to ensure that Bethlehem is a free and open city and not one at the whim of Israeli pressure.

Leila herself left Palestine and Bethlehem at age 18 and returned several years later to film this documentary however the documentary states that her family is depleting around her. They are feeling the pressures of the regime that is keeping Palestine a segregated nation that relies on international aid, most of which doesn’t arrive in full.

The film opens with a potted history of Leila’s family and introduces a recurring figure throughout the film in the form of Leila’s late father and it is this relationship that gives Leila the initial impetus to begin her journey.

Open Bethlehem is a fierce and poignant film. Filmed over seven years, the initial construction of the wall that divides Israel and Palestine is shown for what it is: a literal and complete segregation between two communities that distrust each other, with one forcibly more powerful. The first shots of the wall show that it is in fact an Orwellian structure. The wall is meant to serve as a constant reminder to the citizens of Bethlehem and Palestine as a whole that they are the bad guys, that they are desert dust on the Middle East’s shoe. The irony of Israel constructing such a monolithic, distasteful structure is evidently lost on those who sanctioned it.

The family ties to Leila’s campaign for a free Bethlehem run throughout the film and provide emotional cues at the right time, each of them is not played for dramatic effect but as a remainder that the oppression felt by the Palestinian community is real and in most cases unrelenting.

In an interview with a shop keeper particularly effected by the wall, it is clear that the boot of Israel power is crushing the Palestinian economy by ensuring businesses cannot be served by passing trade but on the flip side that the spirit of the Palestinian people and their desire to keep on fighting for a free and fairer state is not going to diminish.

For all the hope the film builds in moments such as this, it is heartbreaking to realise that hope for many people will always be only that.

Leila is a reliable narrator throughout and does not push an overtly political agenda with her documentary but the implication of politics in fighting her fight is clearly evident.

We see the effects of the fighting between Israel and Palestine in stark detail; families collect bullets that have ripped through their homes and cases of missiles that have fallen in their gardens. These artefacts serve, as a reminder of what is at stake and the dangers that go hand in hand with not lying down and submitting.

As Leila’s campaign picks up a head of steam, the documentary zips along and we leave Bethlehem behind in search of foreign support and investors. Leila is a consummate professional in both settings and this adds to the hope the documentary creates.

Open Bethlehem is a poignant and necessary documentary shedding light on a town that is known the world over but its current, depressing circumstances are not.

I salute you Leila, keep fighting the good fight.

Open Bethlehem is released on December 5th.

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