Secret plight of the desert nomads

By Nick Johnstone, April 11, 2008
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Ori Kleiner’s film demands that Israel’s Bedouins be rescued from a life of terrible poverty.

Nobody could view Ori Kleiner’s documentary about the lives of Bedouin communities in Israel as anything but a damning social critique. Shot on location in the Negev over the summer of 2006, Recognized presents a shocking portrait of the desperate poverty facing many of Israel’s estimated 110,000 strong Bedouin population.

“When I first went to Israel in 2005 to do research, I didn’t even know how to recognise Bedouin villages or even approach these people,” explains Kleiner, a 35-year-old New York-based Israeli.

Once he did make contact, he found welcoming people, eager to talk. As he filmed their stories, he realised how poor his knowledge of their culture was.

“Even though I was born in Haifa, grew up in Israel, spent 21 years there and go to Israel every year to visit family and friends, it really amazed me how little I knew about this topic. I knew they were Bedouin and living down south, but that was pretty much it.”

He started hearing the same story over and over, of a people not recognised by the Israel government, subsequently denied Israeli citizenship and with that, the right to basic necessities such as water supply, electricity, housing, access roads, healthcare.

He also started running into problems with the Israeli authorities, as his camera captured scenes of crackdowns on unrecognised Bedouin villages. “There were some instances where I was not allowed to film. For instance, house demolitions,” he says.

As the weeks rolled by, Kleiner was surprised to find that over 63 per cent of Israel’s Bedouin population are children under the age of 18 and even more surprised at how upbeat those he met were, despite their grim predicaments. “For the most part, they’re not living a miserable childhood. They’re very happy even though their conditions are appalling.”

Kleiner ended up shooting 75 hours of footage. He decided, while editing, to omit interviews with Israeli authorities, keeping the focus instead on the Bedouins’ stories. “I’m definitely not pointing fingers at anyone or blaming. I’m more saying: ‘Let’s see things for what they are. Let’s talk about the Bedouin and the Bedouin issues’.”

Kleiner hopes that in due course, the Israeli government will recognise the Bedouin population. “Everybody should have the right to electricity, clean water, access roads and so forth. There’s a monument in the Negev that says, the people of Israel will be tested in the desert. It’s a quote by Ben Gurion. And for me, this is the real test. How do we deal with this disenfranchised population? That’s the real test for the people of Israel.”

Recognized will be screened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London SW1, on Sunday at 4.30pm. Tel: 020 7930 3647

    Last updated: 6:04pm, May 13 2008