For all the talk about the Palestinian cause and the travel restrictions faced by Palestinians, most commentary on the issue tends to be in general terms. Very few attempts have succeeded in breaking the stereotypical look at Palestine with a focus on a particular city and a strong personal story.
The city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity, is hardly the most Googled name when it comes to Palestine. For Bethlehemite filmmaker turned activist Leila Sansour, though, the city is the place to focus. Her film Open Bethlehem is not just another documentary; it is a ninety-minute epic that transcends politics and normal cinema and gives the viewer a personal view of the life and passions of a single individual who is committed to giving her townspeople a better future.
Shot over a period of more than ten years, the film simply tells the story of the daughter of the city’s leading professor who passed away after helping to found and nourish today’s leading Palestinian institute of higher education, Bethlehem University.
Open Bethlehem is both a film and a call for action. It is one of those rarely-produced documentaries in which you literally get to see inside homes and an entire town encircled by cement blocks and a wall that is higher than the Berlin Wall. By taking her audience on a personal journey, Leila Sansour energises them to emulate her and take up the call to become an ambassador for the beleaguered city.
Born in Moscow to a Palestinian father and a Russian mother, Leila and her brother Maxim are able to provide the ancient city of Bethlehem with both credibility and foresight. In trying to fight away the ugly cement wall that the Israelis had started to build around the Palestinian city, Leila and her cousin Carol came up with a clever idea. They decided to create a “Bethlehem passport” and use it to seek honorary ambassadors around the world. The filmmaker told a crowd in Amman this week that she would like to have a million such ambassadors. Armed with a powerful documentary about what has happened to Bethlehem, she wants to invade the US — Israel’s main ally — with her message for the need to unblock and open Bethlehem.
The film has some powerful scenes of workers cooped up in small wire corridors waiting from 3 am to be processed through the labyrinth of Israeli security in order to reach their jobs at the other side of the wall. The scenes should bring home to anyone with a conscience the grave needs of the people in Bethlehem in particular, and those in Palestine in general, encapsulating as they do the essence of occupation.
The effort to focus on Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem or Ramallah makes obvious sense. If the obstacles facing the Palestinian quest for nationhood can be resolved by international powers, there is no more important need than to change the hearts and minds of American citizens, especially the more hard-line Christians who adopt Christian Zionism with little or no attempt to understand what it is doing to fellow Christian Palestinians in the birthplace of Christ.
Leila Sansour is a powerful yet soft spoken Bethlehemite with a clearly passionate mission. The politics and the reality in the city she is defending might not be very forthcoming at a time when the world is only thinking of ways of countering religious extremism amongst one particular group of people. However, the fact that Palestinian hopes are being physically denied and obstructed in the name of another ancient religion can’t be simply overlooked.
The trial and tribulations that this single individual has gone through to document the Israeli violations of Palestinian hopes are illustrated in this blockbuster documentary that is worthy of the praise and awards it has already won. Open Bethlehem, however, goes further than the usual documentary. It is one of the most passionate and sad reflections on what has been happening in Palestine for decades in front of our eyes and the gaze of the world’s media. At times happy and other times sad, the film and the person filming and being filmed personify the Palestinian tragedy.
After seeing Open Bethlehem you can’t sit still. A clear and powerful case is being made through the efforts of a human being who is bringing to the world a call in which she wants the world to join her. So let us all say it loud and clear: OPEN BETHLEHEM.