Chen Verker, a 29-year-old settler with two young daughters, says shooting is relaxing, in the manner of yoga. “It frees me, it quiets the mind, to focus on something. ... In yoga class you work a lot on breathing. Just as with shooting.”
“Hamushot” (“Armed”) a new web series from the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, follows the daily lives of Verker and two other young women setters, all of whom carry guns, on their daily routines. Liora Ben Tsur runs the small farm started by her father, a white South African who converted to Judaism and immigrated to the West Bank after the apartheid regime ended. Hana Halevi is trying to build her own home in an unauthorized settlement outpost and is coping with a daunting bureaucracy. All three stay are always armed, happily or not. Each woman is the focus of five or six of the series’ five-minute episodes.
“Armed” immediately attracted a lot of attention for a web series. Two TV critics attacked it for allegedly taking the settlement project out of context, examining it without judgment, anthropologically, normalizing the occupation and ignoring the Palestinians. “This series is nauseating. It presents these despicable fascists as courageous pioneers and glorifies them as role models,” Rogel Alpher wrote in Haaretz (in Hebrew).
The series creator, Ayelet Bechar, braced herself from the start for this assault. She calls herself a filmmaker with leftist views who is deeply involved in the community of political filmmakers in Israel. Her first full-length film, “After the Wedding” (2004), looked at couples who cannot live together legally in Israel on account of a law barring even Palestinians with an Israeli spouse from obtaining citizenship.
“I wasn’t surprised by these reactions,” she says. “I know and understand these arguments . There’s an inherent conflict in this kind of work. I agree that if you present a particular reality, in a certain sense you’re giving it legitimacy.”
Bechar believes that presenting this reality as it is, from as close-up as possible, is the bolder political act. “In itself, a film that shows in great detail and from up close a situation in which things that used to be considered extreme have come to be considered normal, says something about it. I’m saying, ‘Look at what is now considered normal in Israel. Women must be armed at home, next to their children, there is illegal construction to which the government in effect turns a blind eye, and the army puts a massive effort into protecting these places where very few people live. The series shows a reality in which the only way to live in it is to ignore the Palestinians’ existence to some degree.”
Bechar says this disregard is a reflection of Israeli society as a whole. “These women ... are part of our society. When we, leftists who live within the Green Line, see them as something very extreme and deviant, as they are usually portrayed in the media, it enables us to push this thing out of our minds and not discuss it or take responsibility for the fact that 100 of these outposts have been built in the past few years. This is not being done in secrecy. These armed women have the backing of the Israeli government. To say that these women are to blame for the occupation is to absolve ourselves of all responsibility. I’m showing that these fringes are normal. Anyone who insists on seeing these woman as outliers is mistaken.”
What did you hope to show with this series?
“The black American thinker James Baldwin wrote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ My job is to closely observe and depict real life as I see it. How are you accustomed to seeing women settlers? In a headscarf, holding a baby, saying a few words to a reporter who came to the settlement and then closing the door. Here you get to take a closer, longer look and also to get their perspective. Just because you listen to someone, let him present his point of view, does that mean you agree with him? So yes, you’re giving him representation, but as the director Ram Loevy said, the documentarian’s job is to listen well, especially to those we don’t agree with. I truly believe that.”
Would you say the critics are ‘doing a [Culture Minister] Miri Regev,’ that is, arguing that to show something is to support or justify it?
“Beyond the fact that the settlement enterprise isn’t waiting for my approval, I think one of the hardest things for me as a filmmaker in the age of Miri Regev is this concept of taking a work of art at face value, not as a complex text, with ironic layers; without giving the viewer a change to interpret and understand it. A work of art is not a moral and political manual. And I think the notion that an audience is incapable of understanding that it’s being presented with a complex reality, and that it can’t reach its own conclusions, is quite wrong.”
Bechar feels her series is important precisely because it listens to people on the other side of the barricades.
“It’s quite clear in Israel today that the path to a peace deal goes through an internal Israeli debate. And this debate cannot take place when political leaders fan hatred and division and suspicion.
“I think that in this sense, ‘Armed’ tries to counter the separation between groups. Some will say the left is kowtowing to the settlers, but today, when a leftist Haaretz reader from Tel Aviv talks with a settler from Gush Etzion, it’s also an act of defiance against the effort to see that there is no real debate here, only incendiary rhetoric. Real debate cannot happen when both sides completely negate the other side’s position. If we don’t face what’s happening in the outposts, we won’t be able to deal with it.”
But in your show, you don’t see two sides having a debate. You only look at their side.
“The series breaks through the settlers’ wall of suspicion toward the media, something we haven’t seen before. We’ve seen settlers documenting themselves, and we’ve seen the critical outside approach. When someone with a critical outlook comes and introduces herself to these women as a leftist and can still get close and convey their story in a way they also consent to, I think that counts as a new filmmaking tactic.”
Bechar sees herself as part of a new trend in Israeli documentary film. Rather than direct its gaze at Palestinian suffering to increase awareness of the wrongs of the occupation, as she did in her debut film, it looks inward, at the Israeli side, to explore the mechanism of the occupation. She cites Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s “The Law in These Parts” and Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” as examples of this genre.
“To me, it’s an interesting question: Who documents whom? In my short documentary ‘Take 3,’ about a refugee from a village near Ramle who was filmed for two documentaries, 40 years apart, Alexandrowicz says the deal in which the privileged side documents the weak side in return for telling its story is no longer valid, he doesn’t want to do any more films like that.
“In the same way, I chose to look at women from a group that once felt excluded from Israeli society but is now strong. As a documentarian, I need to also film them, not only the weak. There’s no question films that depict Palestinian suffering are much more warmly received by the left than any depiction of settlers. Still, I was ready to take the risk of filming these settler women the way that I did.”
Still, their lives could have been contextualized more clearly. You learn very little from the series about the wider story of settlement or even the specific area where they live.
“The series is part of a whole digital project, including a website with a lot of information about the women’s personal lives and the area where they live. For example, there’s an explanation of the mechanism by which the land was declared state property despite being in the territories. Or about how Jews are permitted to live in military firing zones that Palestinians are banned from. Through the story of these women, we were also able to show the scope of construction in the West Bank and the security it requires, all the resources the government allocates to build these isolated communities that are home to very few people. If you watch all the episodes and read what’s on the website, you get a fuller picture.”
You could have provided the context in the episodes.
“Let’s examine this assumption. It wouldn’t have seemed right to me to artificially manufacture encounters, such as between the settler women and their Palestinian women neighbors. I also don’t think it would be right to film impressive figures from the other side to create a false symmetry and a false sense of balance. To show the two sides hating one another, or the two sides learning to live together despite everything, would be easy. What I wanted to show through the story of the three women, whom I genuinely love and respect, despite our political differences, is that today in Israel there is a steadily growing group of men and women who are living a very tense life, a life that exacts a price, while ignoring the effect that their presence beyond the Green Line has on the Palestinians. I’m secure enough in my political position not to fear giving them a fair platform and demonstrating empathy for them. Because, obviously, they are complex human beings like all the rest of us. It doesn’t mean I’m kowtowing to the settlers.”
Did you feel that because the project was for the public broadcasting corporation you had to avoid taking an overly political stand?
“The project suited the corporation’s digital division because it directly addresses the viewer and tries to let him understand for himself, and is not necessarily identified from the start with one political side or another, and it offers a new or different kind of discussion. The language is a little different from what we’re used to, because you’re not inserting the message or criticism into the text, but rather letting people understand for themselves. And this is true of many of the public broadcaster’s productions.”
One might say it’s also an easy way to avoid taking a stand.
“Yes, but the left has been expressing its position on all kinds of platforms for many years, and peace hasn’t come. I think it’s unrealistic to expect that expressing my just position to people who think the opposite of what I think, will bring peace.”
Bechar’s decision to focus on women settlers, with an emphasis on their carrying guns, in order to show the situation in the outposts, calls for a feminist interpretation of the series. Here the conundrum is more complicated — is carrying a gun an expression of independence and feminist consciousness? Or is it a surrender to masculine conventions that amounts to taking part in the oppressive workings of the occupation?
Bechar says she chose to focus on these particular people out of her personal acquaintance with them, and not that she intended to portray them as heroines. Ben Tsur was a student of hers at Sapir College, Verker at the Ma’aleh Film School.
“My intention was to tell an interesting life story. Women acting independently and making their own decisions about themselves doesn’t seem so unusual to me.”
So why a series just about women?
“I thought there was an inherent tension between femininity and carrying guns. I didn’t know this before, but I learned there is also a tension in Jewish religious law around the question of whether a woman can carry a masculine implement. As a filmmaker, I naturally chose a prism of observing female power and the way the women function in a space that is controlled by men. Hana is faced with a challenging attitude from the other residents of the hilltop where she is building her house, for one thing because she is single, and is maybe perceived as someone who can’t decide and do things for herself. The men around her are constantly trying to tell her how and what to do.
“Liora’s father told her that a woman can’t manage alone against Arabs. And Chen, who works for a security company, comes in for criticism when she leaves her baby with the grandparents and goes off with a cocked weapon to search for a terrorist who fled into the orchards. I understand that depicting this feminine power could be perceived as another glorification of the settlements and of the women settlers, but to me it’s just another layer of complexity: Can a woman be oppressed to a certain degree by the men around her and at the same time participate in the oppression of others who are weaker than she is? Apparently so.”
As someone who is used to making longer documentaries, in which a message can be laid out through the course of the entire film, isn’t it frustrating to suddenly be making a series with such brief episodes?
“If you put together all the episodes, you get an hour-long documentary. Each character is given equal weight. From the start, ‘Armed’ was scripted and planned as a series, with each episodes having a progression and containing a lot of information about the character.
“Hila Gavron, director of acquisitions for the public broadcaster’s digital division, who commissioned the series, and I decided that the approach should be ‘cellphones first.’ That’s the concept. We presumed that people would watch it on the bus, maybe even without sound, and you’re trying to reach audiences that the traditional documentary, certainly the political documentary, doesn’t reach.”
What’s different about the language of the digital documentary, as opposed to a longer documentary for the movie theater or television?
“The information is still conveyed through situations, but they are very brief. We decided that the camera would be static most of the time, and that the shots would either be very open or very close-in. To give a sense of place and at the same time let viewers feel close to the action, despite the small screen. It was important to me to preserve the complexity, even though the episodes are short. There are many layers that might only be noticeable on repeat viewing.”