LFF 2018: Unsettling Review
Iris Zaki, director of Unsettling, sits alone at an outdoor table in Tekoa. It's a small settlement, a place that would be non-descript and uninteresting if not for its location and how it came to exist. Depending on your political views, Tekoa either lies in Israeli occupied Palestine or in the West Bank disputed territory.
Over the course of the tight 70 minute documentary, Zaki invites conversation and debate from the people of Tekoa. We watch as she sets up her three cameras in a make-shift interview space - seemingly alone - and waits for interviewees to arrive. At the beginning of Unsettling we hear a male voice talking about the settlement's aversion to journalists, particularly left-wing leaning ones like Zaki. The people are uncomfortable with Zaki making her film there, intruding on their lives. For 30 days, Zaki sits and waits for interviewees, herself becoming part of the Tekoan landscape.
There are a wealth of Western documentaries that have attempted to take a position or open a dialogue on the Palestine/Israel conflict but Zaki is coming at this controversial subject from a very specific position. Zaki is a leftist Israeli, someone who served in the IDF as an intelligence officer and grew up in Tel Aviv. She has an understanding of the situation that others don't. Yet, as seen in her film, she is an outsider in Tekoa - not trusted by the townspeople. She embeds herself within the community as much as she can, but is still an alien to those who she is interviewing.
Various inhabitants sit with Zaki outside the café and speak from the heart about their experiences living in the settlement and their opinions of the conflict there. From staunch right-winger settlers to non-religious farmers, Zaki gives everyone who sits in the chair a platform to speak. Each interviewee is shot in the same way the three camera set-up, that Zaki set up at the film's start, giving a sense of familiarity throughout.
Whilst there is no violence shown on camera, news of shootings, stonings and attacks on both Palestinians and Israelis are regularly discussed. One of Zaki's interviewees, a woman called Michal, is the survivor of a stabbing perpetrated by a Palestinian 'terrorist'. Michal's description of the attack and aftermath is deliberate and articulate. She talks at length with Zaki about her feelings of sadness towards her attacker, her empathy for the people of Palestine and how the Israeli government are culpable for letting the situation evolve as it has done. It's an incredible interview, and a testament to Zaki's direction for allowing Michal to openly speak without interruption or prompting.
Part social experiment, part fly on the wall documentary, Zaki's film seems to move and educate her as much as it does its own audience. Partway through, Zaki speaks to a friend over the phone expressing her angst at how the shooting is going and wondering if there will even be a film at the end of it. If anything, it would have been wonderful to see more of these moments to really hone the journey that Zaki is on. Clearly a director to watch out for - her personality and curiosity is as integral to the project as those she is interviewing. Her previous films Women in Sink explored conversations between Israeli and Arab women at a local hairdressers and similarly to Unsettling, she has a way of connecting with people which allows them room to talk honestly and openly. It may have made this film even more interesting to see her entire process, worries and anxieties included.
Overall, Unsettling is a deeply profound and personal look at the much larger issue. By focussing her camera on the inhabitants of Tekoa, and herself, Zaki allows an intimate exploration of a often de-humanised conflict.
Tickets for Unsettling are still available via the BFI website