In the Hotline Seat: Training a Lens on Asylum Seekers' Tragedies

From its perch in the offices of a Tel Aviv-based NGO dealing with refugees, Silvina Landsmann's camera has unobtrusively revealed the absurd bureaucracy that ensnares people seeking asylum in Israel.

Silvina Landsmann

The first face-to-face encounter of filmmaker Silvina Landsmann with the tangled bureaucracy with which asylum seekers in Israel must cope was in June 2012, during an event at Beit Ha’am on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to mark World Refugee Day.

“In the course of the events there that day, I grasped the phenomenon in all its complexity,” she relates. “I didn’t plan to make a movie about the asylum policy in Israel. But after seeing the way things are on the ground, I wanted to make a film that would illustrate the absurdity of the bureaucratic machine here.”

Landsmann’s new documentary, “Hotline,” which was born out of this encounter, focuses on the Israeli human rights organization Hotline for Migrant Workers and Refugees, documenting the walls of bureaucracy the state erects against the asylum seekers who knock at its gates.

For four months, Landsmann, 50, placed her camera in a corner of Hotline’s small Tel Aviv office and recorded the activity within. The camera follows the organization’s activists as they try to help asylum seekers negotiate the maze of bureaucratic regulations; it films the deliberations on the migrants by members of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee; it goes to Saharonim, one of the purpose-built detention facilities for asylum seekers in southern Israel; and it records exhausting courtroom proceedings.

“Hotline” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and it won the Van Leer Award for Best Documentary at this year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival. It will be screened at the Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Sderot cinematheques starting Wednesday October 21.

Learning via the camera

Landsmann’s camera observes without interfering, without asking questions and without explanatory voice-over; at times the viewers themselves are lost in the bureaucratic maze, forced to parse the situation in which they find themselves.

“I work without preliminary research, I learn the topic via the camera,” she says. “The film is an invitation to listen, to learn the subject.” Nor are there any captions or title screens to identify any of the individuals, such as the names of decision makers in the Knesset committees.

“I didn’t want to call out a particular official or Knesset member,” Landsmann explains. “After all, they change. It was important to me to document the mechanism.”

The personal stories and tragedies are laid out in “Hotline” with an understated minimalism that does not invade the speaker’s pain. For example, when a survivor of torture camps in Egypt’s Sinai is brought to the Hotline offices, he is filmed through a barely open door, lying motionless on a couch. A relative recounts the story of his abuse to an activist through the door; the camera does not linger on his face.

“We are constantly assaulted by difficult stories about people, not necessarily those of asylum seekers, and the tendency is to approach them through misery. I think that identifying with the pain often gets us to empathize with them, but makes it harder for us to try to understand why these things happen. Since we are emotionally unavailable, it can distance us from understanding the mechanism that causes these things to happen,” Landsmann says.

“Hotline” also shows the moments when the absence of genuine solutions in south Tel Aviv causes veteran residents of these neighborhoods to vent their anger at Sigal Rozen, one of the founders of the organization who is today its public policy coordinator. Landsmann records an encounter during which Rozen is verbally assaulted by residents with whom she attempts to create a dialogue, in order to refute the incitement against and the demonization of the asylum seekers living in the vicinity, which certain Knesset members have instilled in the locals.

“I was surprised when they went after me,” Rozen says at a meeting in the offices of the nongovernmental organization. “It was the first time we were attacked directly. The growing incitement against human rights organizations is painful and unfortunate, mainly because it comes from inhabitants of south Tel Aviv who are the victims of government policy just like us and just like the people we help.”

Babies, soldiers, migrants

Landsmann immigrated to Israel from Argentina with her family when she was 11. “I thought, the entire time while making the movie, that when I immigrated to Israel I didn’t go through what the subjects are going through. It was impossible not to look at the asylum seekers with the knowledge that any one of us could find himself one day in another country.”

Her approach to filmmaking has been inspired by Frederick Wiseman, whose influential documentary, “Hospital” (1970), she first saw as a film student at Tel Aviv University. “Wiseman placed a silent camera in a hospital in New York. Suddenly I saw it was possible to make a movie using documentary material. It was an important moment,” she explains.

After university, Landsmann moved to France, where she lived for around a decade and made her first film, “College,” about a junior-high school in Paris with students of 27 different nationalities. After returning to Israel she made “Post Partum,” which focuses a critical eye on the maternity ward of an Israeli hospital.

“After two years in the editing room with the sounds of crying babies I needed some outdoor scenery,” she says with a laugh, by way of explaining how she came to make “Unto Thy Land,” a 2007 documentary about the sculptor Moshe Shek that was influenced by the landscapes of the Lachish region, where he lived.

Landsmann’s next film was “Soldier/Citizen” (2012) about a group of Israeli soldiers who, as they neared the end of their military service, were given an opportunity to study for and take their bagrut (matriculation) exams. Landsmann points out with obvious disappointment that the study program was recently eliminated.

“The state is shirking its responsibility to the disadvantaged. In working on 'Hotline' I wanted to observe this place up close. Human rights organizations go into that vacuum and reach out to the asylum seekers, instead of the authorities doing so," she states. "They too ask themselves whether their assistance could cause the state to renounce its obligations even further.”