When award- winning, leftist, Israeli documentary film-maker, Iris Zaki moved from Tel Aviv to the small West Bank settlement of Tekoa for a month to make her film, Unsettling, she was unprepared for the largely hostile reaction that her presence caused.
“I think being there was the toughest period of my life,” she says, over the phone from Tel Aviv. “I wanted to give up every day. I’m not a small community girl and I was walking around feeling so different, with people staring at me.” There was a lot of talk about her in Tekoa’s many Facebook groups and forums, Zaki explains, and she was also subject to verbal abuse, accused of spying on the community.
Unsettling premiered at the London Film Festival earlier this month and will also screen at the forthcoming UK Jewish Film Festival. The film, made in the summer of 2016 as part of Zaki’s PhD, uses her abandoned camera technique — practiced to great effect in her previous film Women in Sink — to explore what it is like to be a settler. It shows her set up her unmanned camera outside a local shop where she sits and waits, in order to record her conversations with Tekoa’s residents.
Unsettling is not the first film to be made about settlers but Zaki says she came with a different approach. “I said, I’m a leftist, I’m against the occupation, I’m against the settlements. Now, let’s talk.” Not many residents are willing to speak on film but those who do answer candidly, sharing their differing beliefs and perspectives, sometimes with intimacy, even humour. The range of interviewees is wide, including ultra-nationalists; a woman who survived an attack by a teenage Palestinian — and has forgiven him; and a non-religious settler. Through this spectrum, Unsettling highlights the complexities, nuances and contradictions of settler life.
“I was interested in settlers because they are the most extreme [group] to me,” Zaki explains. “By somehow embedding myself in a community, I wanted to show what it was like, what it is that defines them, both politically and personally.” But she admits that, at the beginning, it was a struggle for her to listen and not to argue, and then she let go. “I thought that by letting people open up, I would bring more. I didn’t want it to be like a TV show, or a debate. I did express my opinions but I hadn’t come to [prove] who was right and who was wrong. I was in a position where I needed people to trust me.”
Although her aim was social observation, Unsettling is, inevitably, political. “I think when people talk from a more personal angle, politics comes out. When I hear a settler saying, during a very friendly chat, that everyone who grew up in the West Bank suffers from a post-trauma, that, for me, is very political and way more interesting than if I argue about Bibi Netanyahu.”
Zaki portrays Tekoa as a paradoxical place — full of tension yet also beauty and calm. “Some will say that I’m showing how good the settlements are but, for me, there is this dissonance between the pastoral, biblical beauty — the mountains and the hippy vibe — and the occupation. That was more violent to me than seeing a settlement with armed men walking around.”
Zaki describes her time in Tekoa as two parallel experiences. “On the one hand, being accepted, [meeting] people very much like me, with the same mentality. But, on the other, it’s an entirely different world that I didn’t want to stay in a second after I had finished my project.”
Unsettling screens as part of UK JF on 13 and 21 November, with a Q&A with Iris Zaki following the final screening.