At Alternative Israeli Film Festival in N.Y., Film About Settlers Proves Unsettling Experience for Viewers

Iris Zaki’s award-winning ‘Unsettling’ strikes chord with young audience members, who express surprise at settlers’ lives in the West Bank and find comparisons to Trump’s America

From "Unsettling," Iris Zaki's documentary about the settler movement.
Or Azulay

NEW YORK – The 12th annual Other Israel Film Festival wrapped over the weekend with “Unsettling,” and the documentary about a left-wing Israeli spending time on a West Bank settlement stimulated much debate among the largely liberal-Jewish audience.

Filmmaker Iris Zaki’s documentary won the festival’s Bob Simon Award, with young Jews in the audience saying the film struck a chord for them living in President Donald Trump’s America.

In the film, Zaki spends a month living on the settlement of Tekoa in order to engage with the locals. Their honest, surprising and sometimes funny conversations offer viewers a new take on the Israeli reality on both sides of the Green Line (referring to Israel’s borders before its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967).

Zaki offers a range of settlers’ views: A former member of the extremist “hilltop youth,” who is now a father to four children and disillusioned about his past; a secular left-winger who opens up about his ambivalence toward contributing to the occupation; a young woman who grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron and happily admits to being “somewhat fascist” while hinting at a possible genocide, all while smiling.

“Unsettling” certainly generated lively discussions, which lasted long beyond the post-screening Q&A with Zaki. “Honestly, I thought they lived a terrible life there,” said one woman as she left the theater, referring to the settlers. “I would rather live in Tel Aviv than in Tekoa.”

While the settlements have long been a source of debate for those who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, several members of the audience told Haaretz that “Unsettling” was their first opportunity to see the faces beyond the headlines.

“It was interesting, in the way that I know about settlements but don’t know anything about the people [who] live there,” said Carol Tavel. “It’s a world I’m not familiar with, and the director’s technique was quite engaging. I hope people will see it – because settlements are a hot-button issue and people need to get a perspective on it.”

Leah Birnbaum, a former New Yorker who now lives in Tekoa, had a different perspective. “I loved the landscapes Iris has portrayed, and Tekoa does sit on the edge of the desert. On the other hand, there are over 1,000 families in Tekoa: We don’t all live in huts and shacks and sleep on mattresses,” she said.

“I thought it was a beautiful film, aesthetically and emotionally,” said Elianna Boswell, who works as a development associate for the New Israel Fund. “It’s deeply embedded in the discourse, but [it’s] a difficult one to understand and unpack if you are just introduced to it,” she said.

Many audience members were moved by the story of Tekoa resident Michal Froman, who survived a terror attack on the settlement in January 2016. After being wounded in a stabbing attack by a teenage Palestinian while she was pregnant, Froman initiated a series of meetings between local Palestinians and settlers.

“I would like for every settlement to have meetings with the neighboring Arab village. We need to start melting down the walls,” she tells Zaki in the film.

The documentary seemingly hit closer to home for young audience members who spoke with Haaretz. “The settlers just made me think of my own Shabbat dinners,” Rachel Zaurov told Haaretz. “My dad is very much a wannabe settler; he thinks we should all be moving to the West Bank.” Zaurov, who works at the Abraham Fund Initiatives – which works to promote full and equal citizenship for all of Israel’s citizens – added that the film was important to her. “I used to very seriously consider making aliyah, and the films at the Other Israel Festival – along with recent events – made me realize it’s kind of a pipe dream,” she said.

Another young audience member, Natasha Levy, admitted “Unsettling” had really touched her. “With the political situation in the States, it becomes increasingly hard to have conversations with people [who] don’t politically agree with you, especially when those are people you are close with – your friends, family,” she said.

“I think what the filmmaker said at the end, her hope was to have an open dialogue – that when you have an argument, you don’t get anywhere; people just shut down and get defensive. That has totally been my experience,” said Levy. “It’s not that you can’t ask the hard questions and push back, but [you need] to have a more empathetic approach.”

She continued: “But I realize it’s not going to work for everybody. The stakes are different for different people, and it’s very tough to have this kind of openness when your life is on the line.”

Organizers said the festival – which aims to showcase a marginalized side of Israel rarely seen in the mainstream media, especially internationally – was the most successful since its launch in 2007. Other films shown included feature film “The Cousin,” and documentaries such as “In Her Footsteps,” “Foreign Land” and “Looking for Zion.”