The Israeli settlements in occupied territories are less a political hot potato and more a lump of molten lava and pop culture tends to ignore the subject. (One exception is the grindhouse-lite thriller Big Bad Wolves, in which the protagonists detain and torture a suspected killer in a settlement house – hello subtext.) Documentaries on the Israel/Palestine conflict include the topic as a matter of course, though they usually do little beyond reference the existence of the settlements as an obvious point of contention. The Settlers, now in theaters in NYC with a limited nationwide release soon to follow, is devoted wholly to the subject and acts as a decent primer on the history of the Israeli settlements, particularly in the West Bank.
Granted, anyone looking for a more in-depth look would be wise not to assume they’ve learned everything they need to from this documentary. As other articles on the film have pointed out, it has a dearth of Palestinian voices and leaves out a lot of historical and even contemporary political context. But that goes for any documentary; only so much can be conveyed within the space of two hours or so. That doesn’t necessarily excuse The Settlers for everything it doesn’t touch on, of course – it’s just something to always keep in mind when watching any documentary. The information is less important than the humanity.
In this case, the humanity is mainly the more extreme element of the settler movement, both historical and current. These are the hardcore Zionists, the strident religionists, the “Hilltop Youth,” and the like. In director Shimon Dotan’s estimation, they are perhaps one-fifth of the overall population of the settlers, but they have an outsized influence on the movement and on Israeli politics in general.
But Dotan thwarts his own thesis. The film’s portrayal of Israel as almost unwillingly dragged into the settlements by these few rogue extremists is questionable (particularly since it also delves into how the government covertly supports them). And the movie gives little screen time to those “moderate” settlers – the ones who live in the West Bank, not for any ideological reason, but simply because it’s cheaper to build and live there. It’s a shame that they get so little focus because the one scene of a witless yuppie boasting about how big he was able to make his house is more infuriating than any in which a religious radical insists that the land belongs to them because it says so in the Tanakh.
The Settlers works best in scattered sequences like that, where long explanations about politics fall by the wayside in favor of a subject simply revealing themselves for who or what they are. Documentaries can become electric in exposing the fervor at the heart of extremists and this is a conflict that’s bred a lot of those. There’s the man who plainly admits that he is a racist in a monologue that would be discarded from any play or movie as too unrealistic. There’s the footage of a Palestinian woman admonishing Israeli youths encroaching on her olive grove. This is what makes the film more vivid and valuable than a Wikipedia article on the subject, even with its messy construction.