What is a settler? An extremist? A visionary fulfilling a spiritual mission? A murderer? An invader? According to the most basic definition offered by Shimon Dotan’s The Settlers, a settler is someone who has built their home “in an area over which the State of Israel has no sovereignty”.
The Settlers is an astonishing achievement. Dotan combines archival footage, illustration, and contemporary footage in this documentary that offers a surprisingly balanced, thoroughly researched, and delicate portrait of these communities. The cinematography, both new and archival, depicts both the violent history of the settlements and the natural rugged beauty of the landscape. Ultimately, The Settlers is a moving and mesmerizing film that feels much shorter than its nearly two-hour runtime.
Dotan delves deep into the political and spiritual history of Israel, showing us the origins of the settlements and the transformation of the settlers themselves from a small group of radical believers to a vast network of subdivisions and outposts with a total population in the hundreds of thousands. Interviews with Jewish settlers, leaders of the movement, former government officials, Palestinian farmers, and even the founder of the Palestinian Human Rights organization Al Haq compliment the exhaustive research that the filmmakers have clearly conducted.
Yet the political, social, religious, and economic sides of the settlements do not overshadow the human element. Interviews with the leaders of the original settler movement show the insides of their homes: living rooms, books, arm chairs. A Palestinian man speaks with passion and love about the land that he and his family have been farming and tending to for generations. This is not merely a regurgitation of dates, reports, military operations, and statistics. The documentary draws an intimate portrait of the founding of the settlements and the people that call them home.
So, what is a settler? I predict that no two people will watch Shimon Dotan’s film and come away with the exact same answer. The mark of a truly successful social/political documentary is that it challenges audiences to bring their own beliefs, prejudices, faith, and allegiances to the table. Not as a call to action or reaction, but as an examination of the complexity of truth. In our current global age of information anxiety and growing polarization between ideologies, this examination of perspectives locked in a decades-long violent opposition is both bleak and sobering.
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