Toronto filmmaker Igal Hecht, known for his documentaries on Israel and Judaism, has always felt that the Israeli settlers have not been given fair treatment in most newscasts and films about them.
Daniella, and two young settlers, construct an outpost on the hilltop just before soldiers tear it down. (video)
He wants his new film, The Hilltops, which is premièring at the Hot Docs and the Toronto Jewish film festivals in May, to change that.
“I wanted to find out what these settlers are all about and let them have their say,” he says in a recent interview. “I didn’t shy away from asking them the tough questions, but I gave them a fair shake.” Hecht says that most filmmakers primarily “demonize” the settlers, blaming them for being the reason there’s no peace in the area.
This film primarily focuses on three settlers. What’s unique about them is that unlike the stereotypical settler with long beards, uzis and kippahs, these settlers are all women.
“The Hilltops is an insider’s look into the lives of three prominent women settlers in Judea/Samaria – or the West Bank – and what they do to hold on to what they call ‘their land.’”
There is no voice-over narrative or Michael Moore-like director interference in this 45-minute film. Instead Hecht hands over the story to the settlers and lets them tell the story.
“They view the lands of Judea as the heartland of Israel, more important than the rest of Israel, and that’s the tragedy of it all – they feel disconnected to the rest of Israel and vice versa,” Hecht says.
The film opens and closes with a scene shot on one of the disputed hilltops. A small group of people including several teenage girls, led by Daniella, are building what they call an outpost, a small wooden shack. Soon, the army comes along and after warning them, the soldiers begin to forcibly remove them one by one. Then, the outpost is torn down, but the same settlers return later and start to rebuild the outpost.
“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Hecht admits. “They are telling the army, the world, that they will not be stopped. Their point is, ‘Look at what you had to do to remove us, a small group, it required 20 soldiers. Imagine if you had to clear a whole village.’
“I’m not saying whether it’s right or wrong, but they’re going to make it very hard to implement any resolution.”
That scene is the only confrontational sequence in the documentary and Hecht admits they got lucky. “We had no idea that was going to happen,” he says. “We were just following [Daniella] when the army arrived.” The army told him to stop filming, but Hecht, who’s been in Israel enough times to know his rights, continued to film.
Hecht and his director of photography, Lior Cohen, spent time getting to know the settler community and gaining their trust. “The settlers are great people. Politically, I have my differences with them, but they were very open to debate and to answer questions.”
And the one thing this film shows is that the settlers cannot be pigeon-holed into one stereotype. “Some of them are extremists, and some of them are really lovely. There is a movement within the settler movement itself to start a relationship with the Palestinians. They understand that they are not going anywhere.”
Filming in these areas is not without danger. Although it’s not in the film, Hecht relates how he was almost attacked by one settler who thought he was with the leftist group Peace Now. “He was a huge-looking guy and he came close to me yelling, ‘Are you one of those traitors?’ and wanted to beat the crap out of me, but a woman stepped in telling him who I was.”
The one thing that perhaps is missing in this film is the voice of the other side. Other than one Palestinian who takes part in a meeting with two settlers, there are no Palestinians in this film.
Hecht says he did that intentionally. “It wasn’t that kind of film. That film’s been done to death. One’s probably being made right now. What makes The Hilltops unique is that this is the settlers’ position. What they’re about and what they stand for. That’s the point of it. I think they have something very legitimate to say.”
Whether the viewers agree with the settlers is up to them. But this film certainly makes their case clear and highlights the great divide between secular and the right-wing religious Jews.
“It should be illegal to prevent the right of Jews to build on our land,” Daniella says in the film. “They [the government] don’t understand anything about Jewish law.”
Hecht, whose company Chutzpah Productions has produced many documentaries, including Y.I.D., Not In My Name and Banished, is thrilled to have this film screened at both festivals in the space of a week. “It’s amazing to have it in Hot Docs [the largest documentary festival in North America] and as for the TJFF, I owe everything in terms of my career to them.”
For screening dates, visit www.hotdocs.ca and www.tjff.ca. The Hilltops will also run on the CBC Documentary channel later this year.