A secular, left-wing Tel Avivian goes off to live on a West Bank settlement. Contrary to what one might expect, hilarity does not ensue. Unsettling, the superb new documentary by Iris Zaki follows that high-concept outline but succeeds where most journalists and documentarians have failed. Zaki is one of the most interesting young documentary filmmakers active in Israel and her achievement is in painting a sensitive, human portrait of a place and its people, despite deep misgivings about her chosen subject. I met with Zaki recently at a café near her home in central Tel Aviv, to ask her how she did it.
Unsettling will receive its American premiere this week at New York’s Other Israel Film Festival (Nov. 6 and 8), followed by a screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival (Nov. 11), and a broadcast on Israel’s public Kan 11 channel on Nov. 12. In Hebrew the film is called Mitnachelet, which translates literally as Settler; Zaki is the eponymous heroine. In the documentary’s opening moments, she is seen lugging her equipment through Tekoa, a settlement about 6 miles south of Jerusalem, and setting up an impromptu interview spot by a grocery store in town. The film consists mostly of conversations Zaki had with residents at that site. Though the film sometimes makes it look as if Zaki’s job was easy, her settlement-within-a-settlement initially attracted local ire to rival that of the international community’s attitude towards Tekoa itself. She had initially planned on spending a month there but found the locals far tougher to crack than she had anticipated.
Not that Zaki hadn’t dealt with tricky communities before. Her first film, the documentary short My Kosher Shifts, followed her conversations with the clientele of an Orthodox Jewish hotel in North London, where she worked as a receptionist. There she developed a technique she calls the abandoned camera: one or more stationary cameras are set up to record her conversations. With no cameraman present, Zaki’s interlocutors soon lose much of their self-consciousness, and her low-key but probing style takes care of the rest, resulting in remarkably heartfelt conversations (she elaborated on this technique in her recently completed PhD). Her sophomore effort, Women in Sink, took her to a salon in her native Haifa, where she washed the hair of Jewish and Arab women, while also recording their stories.
Zaki’s experience in Tekoa was trickier, to say the least. “The difficulty mostly stemmed from not being able to film at first,” she told me. “Tekoa is a place where people are wary of cameras, and I can understand why. But when someone screamed at me to take my camera and leave, I told him that if you consider this place to be a part of Israel, I should be able to film here just the same as I can film in Tel Aviv. I cried a lot but it only made me want to stay on.” The filmmaker took her time to earn the trust of the community—mostly off camera. One month became two, and eventually, some 40 of Tekoa’s 4,000 or so residents made the pilgrimage to her shoestring studio by the grocery.
Tekoa’s image in the Israeli press is that of a hippy-dippy settlement, more new age than ideological, perhaps due to it having been home to the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, most famous for his message of interfaith peace. But just as Froman was parodied and misunderstood during his lifetime, Unsettling reveals Tekoa—and by extension, the settlement movement—to be a far more complicated and diverse place than one might think. “I found it to be such an interesting and dynamic town, that’s grown so much in recent years. Full of secular Russians, mizrahim, newly religious Jews,” Zaki told me. “Speaking with the people was the real highlight of my experience there. My mind and my heart opened up to people who are thousands of light years away from me but live only an hour from here. I discovered that blurriness of how similar we are but also how different. People who reminded me of myself and of my friends from Tel Aviv. The occupation has been normalized here in Tel Aviv, but it’s the same thing in Tekoa. It’s in plain view there, but it’s transparent, you don’t notice it anymore.”
Though Unsettling wears its political heart on its sleeve, it is nuanced in ways that the recent crop of Israeli documentaries is often not. Inevitably, the need to target international festivals, distribution deals, and Netflix—all economic necessities for young filmmakers hailing from a small local market—leads to more didactic filmmaking. Zaki’s film requires a much closer read. Its protagonists are her generational peers, born in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They are young and charismatic. One of them is Michal Froman–Rabbi Froman’s daughter-in-law–who was stabbed by a Palestinian while pregnant and made controversial statements expressing empathy for her assailant. A reductionist critique of the film could argue for it being an elaborate apologia for the settlements. What makes Unsettling unsettling lies beneath the surface. The first generation of the settlement movement was comprised of staunch ideologues. Not so the second generation, the stars of the film. “It’s their life and it’s their home. That normalcy screams out so much more than another interview with someone explaining why the settlements are a good thing,” Zaki said. “That understanding they have that not everything is OK, but to still live with it–that’s what’s jarring in my film. But the same goes for me, living here in Tel Aviv.”
Zaki, whose heritage is a mix of Egyptian and Eastern European, told me she was the first in her family to hold left-wing views. Her opinions don’t seem to have changed in the aftermath of her West Bank sojourn, but they have deepened. “The settlers are the face of what angers us, and it’s OK to be angry,” she said. “But the Israeli government is the responsible party. It’s the government that hands out building permits, and that goes for left-wing governments as well.” The film ends with Matanya, perhaps the most affable of Zaki’s Tekoan friends, voicing his hope that the State of Israel finally passes judgment on the fate of his home, whether to formally annex it or to relinquish control.
“I always thought that the settlers were the beneficiaries of that gray area,” Zaki told me. “But it’s the government that benefits most from deciding not to decide. And so my anger is with the government. There’s still a lot that we can do. But we don’t protest anymore. It’s fun here in Israel, we travel abroad, there’s no terror in the streets anymore, life is good. So we talk about other things. People here are content.”