You might not know about one of the Middle East's most incendiary issues. This doc will change that

Canadian-Israeli Shimon Dotan's newest work explores the West Bank's Jewish-only settlements — through the eyes of the settlers themselves.

Shimon Dotan's newest work explores the West Bank's Jewish-only settlements — through the settlers' eyes

The Settlers. (Hot Docs)

Canadian-Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan knew he had to make a film about the Jewish-only settlements who have dotted the occupied West Bank for a half-century when he was shooting his last documentary, 2006's Hot House. That film dealt with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and during filming, it led Dotan to spend time in a few settlements and to meet with settlers.

"It became clear to me then," Dotan tells CBC Arts, "that I had to make a film about the settlers and the settlement enterprise."

​A decade later, the film resulting from that genesis — The Settlers — is hitting theaters. After a hugely successful run on the film festival circuit (including Sundance and Hot Docs), it's being released this weekend, offering an illustration — through first-person accounts, historical footage and expert witness — of how 400,000 motivated Israelis ended up in communities almost strategically placed between, and sometimes within, Arab Palestinian cities populated by the millions. It's an imperative narrative too few people are fully aware of.

"I made The Settlers because, in my view, the settlement enterprise has the most dramatic impact on the future of Israel, and the discussion about it is often misinformed," Dotan says. "I set out to explore the reality in the West Bank settlements. But it soon became clear that I had to go back to the roots, to where and when the West Bank settlements began." 

Shimon Dotan. (Hot Docs)

So he did. The Settlers is structured along three pillars: first, the history of the settlements and the evolution of the settlement movement, second, the religious and ideological forces that drove the movement and third, the reality on the ground today.

Dotan admits that he believes that any act of representation is biased by definition, his included.

"Still, I did my best not to impose my personal views and convictions on the world I was trying to bring to the screen," he says. "I wanted to allow the audience, as much as possible, to experience a firsthand encounter with the settlers, their world and their views. This approach, I believe, allows the viewer to develop or sharpen their own opinions on the topics the film is touching."

I wanted to allow the audience, as much as possible, to experience a firsthand encounter with the settlers, their world and their views.- Shimon Dotan , filmmaker

The main challenge for Dotan in all this was access.

"In general, settlers are reluctant to talk to 'the media' because they believe they are misrepresented," he explains. "After convincing a few key leaders of the movement to talk to me, many others were willing to open up."

Another major issue came up in the editing room.

"I was always asking myself if, in the process of bringing to the screen people with whom I have deep disagreements, I do not distort the representation," he says. "I'm opinionated, indeed, but I did my best not to impose my views and convictions on the viewers."

The Settlers. (Hot Docs)

Now that the film is making itself out into the world, Dotan hopes it will help audiences become more informed and opinionated, especially those with connections to the area.

"I think that anyone who has anything to do with Israel must be informed about the settlements," he says. "I hope that my film opens a window for that to happen. I tried to provide a representation that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying."

The Settlers opens theatrically at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, March 17.

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