Israeli filmmaker Avner Faingulernt spent four years in the hilly landscapes of southern West Bank. The result is two different films that when paired together tell two parallel stories of two different families. In the first, we follow Palestinian shepherd Omar and his family. In the second, the Israeli settler Avidan, his pregnant wife and a small bunch of their helpers, as well as their goats and sheep.
«I loved to visit both worlds. I saw no interaction and nothing combined them. But, maybe this is a new beginning anyway,» said the director after the screening at the DocAviv film festival in Tel Aviv in May.
Similar conditions, fundamental differences
Omar hails from the large village of Yatta – located in the Hebron Governorate in the West Bank –but moves to more remote regions. He wants to settle on the land that his Bedouin family has owned for generations in order to be close to his «tribe». The move is initially challenging and the first wave of thunderstorms spent under plastic sheeting prompts him to construct a proper home. He builds the primitive cinder block structure at night to escape the gaze of Israeli soldiers in full control of the area.
Conversely, settler Avidan is a veritable hippie ideal, managing to escape the materialistic city lifestyle in order to spend time with animals and a guitar on a rocky hilltop. His home is an abandoned wooden building that he and his comrades renovate in broad daylight – a fairly typical settler outpost.
The two families build their dreams in similar weather conditions. And, in both areas they find similar solutions to their problems – for example they sleep on mattresses on the roof when summer temperatures are unbearable. While these occurrences are infrequent, they are intense in nature, thus emphasising fundamental similarities. This connection between their lives is also illustrated through the use of colour – for example, the significance of blood after both slaughter a goat.
The differences are most obviously apparent politically.
Stark reality behind breath-taking landscape
According to Israeli human rights organisation Btselem there are more than 200 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. All of them are illegal according to international conventions, but nevertheless 127 enjoy official recognition from the Israeli government. Another 100 or so are the so-called settler outposts. Typically they consist of just a few buildings and a handful of people, but they often control large tracts of land. They hope to gain official recognition one day. Meanwhile outpost settlers, as Israeli citizens, receive army protection.
This is the stark reality behind the breath-taking landscape. The two films are set in the same area, often called the South Hebron Hills. It is one of the poorest parts of the West Bank, home to some of the most destitute Palestinian farmers, and many of the local Jewish settlers are fiercely radical. Mostly the situation is tense. Local Bedouin children on their way to school are often harassed by settler youth, while their fathers’ olive saplings are uprooted.
In the films we see this manifested in a total absence of contact between the two families. At one point Avidan is watching a Palestinian herd passing in the distance and says that their meadows are dry and barren, while «his» land is green and lush – «because the Arabs do not understand the land, they are not connected to it.» Omar and his family get stopped at army checkpoints, whereas soldiers visit Avidan to check on the situation. They have been told to be careful, because Avidan is a risky type – for that reason he has no license to carry a weapon. But when Avidan invites to soldiers to sit down for a cup of coffee, they accept and enjoy their time in his company.
In the end Avidan has to give up his project for financial reasons. But he explains to his wife and friends, that he has finished with the place and it is time to move on to something else. That gives another perspective on the story: Avidan has the privilege to get up and move whenever he likes, whereas Omar and his family are doomed to stay on their land, and face the prospect of new, threatening neighbours – bereft of the illusion of choice.
Together, the pair of films are known as In the Desert. To watch them both is a sincere experience. The compelling storytelling and side-by-side presentation of the men’s live is beautiful. But calling it a new beginning, as Avner Faingulernt hinted, is less convincing. At times the films, by virtue of their existence, seem like they could exacerbate and intensify differences rather than remedy them.
Omar was in Tel Aviv for the screening which was part of the DocAviv film festival. He did not want to comment on the film, but emerged all smiles. He excused himself as it was Ramadan, and he had been on his way out in the city to break the daily fast. His only word was, «Kosher!», referring to the Jewish metropolis where he was located, and where the citizens comply with Jewish eating customs.
Together, the pair of films are known as In the Desert.
Avidan has the privilege to get up and move whenever he likes, whereas Omar and his family are doomed to stay on their land, and face the prospect of new, threatening neighbours – bereft of the illusion of choice.