In July 2003 the Israeli government announced a plan to protect their state from terrorist attack and commenced work on the first stage of the construction of a vast wall between Israeli and Palestinian settlements through one of the most historically important and politically disputed lands in the world. Stunned by the contradictory nature of the construction as a kind of peace initiative and by the personal conflict it gave rise to within her own identity as an Arab and a Jew, French documentary filmmaker Simone Bitton, travelled over to the Middle East to witness the construction the wall, taking in views from all sides affected, to try to understand for herself what it was supposed to achieve.
It is clear from the opening scenes of the documentary showing the murals and the cold, methodical cutting through countryside of bulldozers and barbed wire, dividing farm owners from their own land, that initially the filmmaker wished to draw a parallel between the construction of the Israel-Palestinian wall and the Berlin wall, and indeed as a symbol of oppression and division, it is potent imagery. However, as the film progresses, that connection disappears and is replaced by a more complex view on the ambiguous nature of the relationship between the wall and those living in its shadow, and ultimately takes on the even more sinister aspect of a concentration camp wall.
First of all, the filmmaker dutifully get the official viewpoint on the construction of the wall. General Amos Yaran of the Israeli Ministry of Defence describes the barrier as a “security fence”, whose primary aim is to reduce the ability of Palestinian terrorists to mount attacks on vulnerable neighbouring Israeli settlements. However wrong-headed and back-to-front the justification is, it is clear that it is the earnest belief of the Israeli government that this ugly and oppressive construction paradoxically represents their best effort at bringing about peace in the region. Coming from city myself where such barriers are commonplace, and are referred to here in Belfast as “peace walls”, it’s not hard to recognise the irony of such an aim. It is the absurdity of such a proposition being put forward as an answer in the absence of any political solution that Bitton then focuses on in the remainder of the film.
Speaking directly to people affected on both sides of the wall, the absurdity of the stated intention of the fence becomes even more apparent and the stated intent is not so clear-cut. On the Israeli side of the wall some people feel even less secure, hemmed in on all sides by a structure that sets them up wide-open like a ready-made target. On the Palestinian side, the wall has moved into green-line territory, expropriating land that is the only means of livelihood for many people in an impoverished region. It’s a situation that is detrimental to both communities, who would normally benefit from the produce of this fertile land. Furthermore, the absurdity of this situation is that it leads to Arabs, with no other opportunities for work, actually co-operating in building the wall around themselves. “Without peace, it’s worthless”, says one worker - who is nonetheless happy to be paid for doing the work – a statement that conversely implies that since with peace it wouldn't be necessary either, the real grounds for security must lie in finding a peaceful political solution.
Wall is not however a heavy-weight political commentary or polemic that sets out to make any grand statement, impose a view or even educate the viewer to facts, figures and dates. Described on the DVD cover as a “meditation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, it doesn’t really offer any insight on the situation. Simone Bitton has described how shocked she was when she first heard of the attempt to build the wall, and immediately went out to see just how they planned to implement such a policy. That’s all the film attempts to document. It points a camera at the building of the fence, and shows the obscenity of such a construction as it makes its inexorable destructive progress through beautiful countryside to the dissatisfaction of many of the inhabitants of both sides. But to describe the making of the film as simply pointing the camera is a little inaccurate. There are many images and scenes that are superbly filmed and visually eloquent. Admittedly these often involve soldiers permitting and denying passage or workers making clandestine crossings across the “seam-line” and evading patrols - but the power of such imagery is indisputable, as is the fallacy of the building of walls instead of bridges, and the inevitable determinacy of people to resist and bring them down.
Wall is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.
The quality of the transfer is quite superb, showing up no flaws or marks on the print and having no real issues with transfer to the digital medium – if indeed the film is not already shot and transferred directly from Digital Video. There occasionally appears to be a slight haziness and dirt marks, but I’ve no doubt these come from having to film through a car or bus window rather than being anything to do with the transfer.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, which is more than adequate for a documentary feature of this nature, and it comes across as clear and accurate.
English subtitles are provided in a clear, white font and are optional.
Conversation with Elia Suleiman and Simone Bitton (30:30)
Speaking with the Palestinian filmmaker, Suleiman, Bitton explains the difference between making a feature film and a TV documentary, which up to then had been her career. Between them, they discuss various ways of filmmaking and how to find a new way to represent what is happening in the Middle East.
Conversation with Michel Khleifi and Simone Bitton (29:11)
In a more recent interview, Bitton and Palestinian filmmaker Khleifi discuss what the film managed to achieve and how the situation has deteriorated since it was made. Bitton also gives some information on what drove her to make the film and what she hoped to achieve. The conversation drifts onto the wider subject of the nature of the art of filmmaking and how to depict reality on film.
Simone Bitton’s approach to documentary filmmaking attempts to be even-handed and level-headed in its look at the construction of the Israeli-Palestinian security barrier and it’s undoubtedly the correct approach. An angry polemic couldn’t be more effective than simply and poetically showing the ugly reality of kilometres of stark concrete winding its way through beautiful countryside and across farms and towns. Allowing such imagery and the people involved to speak for themselves – the words of the Israeli Ministry of Defence included – condemns the whole project for the absurdity that it is and needs no further commentary. Artificial Eye’s DVD release is well up to their usual quality, with an outstanding anamorphic transfer and informative interviews for extra features.