A packed house at the Film Society at Lincoln Center hangs perpendicular—staring straight down at a mottled beige satellite map that hovers beneath. At first, the map has no place-names, no borders: no markers of reality outside of geology; I cannot tell you where it begins and ends, but I can tell you that it includes territories that have been described by the names “State of Palestine,” “Palestinian territories,” “land of Israel,” “the Promised Land,” and thousands of other linguistic claims to smaller parcels of land which are simultaneously “disputed” and “occupied,” bearing labels of mutually exclusive nationalisms. As the narration begins and history marks the terrain, the map contorts and morphs into fragments. Against this aerial cartographic illustration of fraught political geographies, Shimon Dotan sets the testimonies of Jewish settlers who live and speak in contradiction, returning us solidly to the ground, and lucidly animating the deeply painful limbo of the West Bank.
What The Settlers presents, then, are the outlines of the religious maps of Israel that have been drawn over Palestinian territories, superimposed with a series of political negotiations accorded by the United Nations and respective nations, as described by the colonizing inhabitants, archival footage, and pans of the landscape: the Green Line map of post-Israeli independence (1949), the conquest of Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Sinai Peninsula through the Six-Day War (1967); and the reconfigured political status of Areas A, B, and C delineated by the Oslo Accords (1993)—and then the unending montage of cookie-cutter outlines which fade into the black screen of real-time as the audience begins to stir uneasily and rise from their seats.
Despite the almost total lack of any Palestinian voices or maps, the greatest power of this film is that it concretizes the dangerous religious imaginary of Israel as it is projected onto currently occupied land in current time; the film shows how the ideal geography of the “whole land” is superimposed upon the real, and enacted by massive infrastructural and ideological overhaul. A teenage member of the extremist group Hilltop Youth stands overlooking a valley and proclaims a sovereign openness that stretches from the Euphrates to the Nile, creating “open spaces” through language which do not exist within the geography occupied by millions and governed by Jordan and Egypt—as Dotan reminds the young smiling boy—yet which pose a very real threat. A young Israeli woman sits in the shade of an olive grove that belongs to her, she states, yet which is tended to by Palestinian famers “for the moment,” collapsing the messianic future-time and its implications for property ownership into a span of seconds, the promised land coming right after “now.”
Along with guns and bombs, language, bulldozers, scripture, and architecture are weaponized to systematically eradicate a people from a territory defined as not-theirs. Dotan traces the militarization of Israel in the face of Palestinian existence to 1967, as Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook roared for the reclamation of Hebron, Nablus, and Jericho, and galvanized the first settlers to colonize the West Bank, inciting the Six-Day War, bringing over one million Palestinians in the territories of Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank under Israeli rule. The settlements first began as white, pre-fab mobile homes dragged as trailers, seemingly provisional. These were followed by more permanent houses, with red-brick roofs mandated by the military to distinguish Israeli settlements from the air, to navigate “where you can bomb and where you cannot,” according to the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. The settlements were arranged strategically on hilltops to break up the continuity of Palestinian topography, functioning as wedges to surround the Palestinian towns in the valleys beneath, and opening up regions to further colonization—effectively rendering Palestinian territory shrinking islands increasingly engulfed by the ocean of the Israeli offensive. Once these communities began to grow in size, larger infrastructural changes were made according to what Weizman calls the “point and lines strategy”—a framework for the domination of space which re-creates geography by defining new modes of travel between destinations. Highways and tunnels obfuscated the lay of the land, re-arranging distance to match the ideal of the empire: “seven minutes to get from the settlements to Jerusalem”; “I don’t even see the security checkpoints anymore.” Land not currently occupied by Israel is essentially deleted on the map, in order to support the illusion of one interconnected state, reinforced by fences, walls, watchtowers, and checkpoints—until the conquest is complete and the projection of the state of Israel matches the real geography.
As the spiritual landscape gains increasing authority to dictate the political landscape, a product of the increasingly powerful presence of religion within the democratic apparatus of Israel, the fear—as Dotan reminded the audience in the Q&A following the film—is that the map will become the territory.
The Settlers premiered at the 2016 New York Film Festival and opens at Film Forum (209 W Houston St.) on March 3.