Almost as inevitable as the endless feature stories about the recent increase in political documentaries is the limpness of the films themselves. A strong documentary demands both surprising characters and a rich ethical imagination; make subjects’ impulses too obvious, as many of these films do, and you wind up with pamphleteering, pandering or Michael Moore.
The nonfiction films about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that have been made since the second intifada have hardly bucked this trend. Too much preaching and too little detachment have resulted in a whole crop of movies that tend toward the predictable. Typically, these films name-check the required political positions and quicksand into partisanship; intimate narratives and difficult choices are far more rare.
All of which makes “Unsettled” that much more startling a feat. The American-made documentary, about the evacuation of the Jewish settlers in Gaza by the Israeli army, won a grand jury prize in January at the Slamdance Film Festival (an alternative to Sundance that runs concurrently in Park City, Utah) and will likely be making the festival rounds to some acclaim in the coming months. It’s easy to see why. Without a single shot of a Palestinian (or, for that matter, a single shot from a gun), director Adam Hootnick has managed to pull off the improbable: a film about the conflict that is intellectually complex, emotionally taut and wholly without prejudice.
It’s the summer of 2005, and Middle East tensions are turning inward. The Israeli army is about to undertake the evacuation of 8,500 settlers from Gaza. Soldiers are taking instructions not only on how to defend against resistance but also on what facial expression to wear (solemn, joyless). “There is no enemy. There is no victim,” one soldier says of the philosophical no-man’s-land where Hootnick has set up his film.
Cleverly cutting between the settlers preparing for the evacuation and the soldiers preparing to do the evacuating, Hootnick occasionally asks direct questions about his characters’ political positions. Mostly, though, he sits back, taking a wonderfully restrained fly-on-the-wall position that captures everyone at his or her most natural and colorful. These are the most unlikely band of settlers, soldiers and activists you’ll ever meet. There’s Ye’ela, the sister of a suicide-bombing victim but an ardent peacenik; Lior, a good-times surfer guy and lifelong Gaza resident, and Yuval, a stoic soldier who is nonetheless prone to describing the evacuation with such statements as, “The lines are really blurred.” Hootnick almost seems to revel in casting against type, the effect of which is to keep the viewer pleasantly off balance; nothing here, not even military stereotypes, is very neat.
Of course, the Gaza evacuation offers a subject rife with reversals and ironies. Even macho soldiers become more human when they’re forced into an uncomfortable job, and zealots turn sympathetic when they’re faced with losing everything.
But it would be selling the film short to chalk up its power to topic alone. Hootnick has found a way to turn one of the most politicized subjects of our time into a sensitively wrought drama containing both suspense and moral weight. Like some of the most accomplished documentaries of the past few years — the suburban abuse-drama “Capturing the Friedmans,” or the art-celebrity meditation “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” — “Unsettled” has the capacity to ignite a remarkable cognitive dissonance. It’s possible to believe in the general wisdom of the Gaza withdrawal but still cry at the plight of a family leaving its home of 25 years; conversely, you may disagree heartily with the government policy of withdrawal but sympathize with the soldiers asked to carry it out.
Like all good political documentaries — and unlike so many political films of the past few years — the politics of “Unsettled” also sneak up on you. It may be days after you see the movie before you realize whom you identify with and who makes you angry. It’s a political movie whose power comes precisely from its decision to bleed out politics, at least the obvious kind. “Unsettled” isn’t about the wisdom of the policy of land-for-peace — it’s about the human toll of executing that policy.
In its more fraught moments, the film raises questions about the ethics of protest (a subject, incidentally, that echoes far beyond Israel’s shores). What are a soldier’s obligations to resist, and how much sensitivity must he show toward countrymen who essentially spit on him? When does civil disobedience cross into ingratitude or anarchism? And, most resonantly, what are the implications of a society in which a government has lost its ability to explain itself to its citizens?
As “Unsettled” moves along, the rhetoric of the settlers threatens to lead to the worst-case scenario: bloody fratricidal clashes that, for all their visceral power, will fritter away the emotional fragility the movie worked so hard to earn. But “Unsettled” veers toward a more supple place. Its payoff is not the grit of violence but the tender balance between patriotism, family and geography.
Hootnick, who has never directed a film before, is a talent of considerable proportions, possessing an almost psychic sense of where to place the camera. One of the film’s most wrenching moments comes when a settler shovels dirt on his red paratrooper boots as if to bury his soldier past and, perhaps, even, the idea of Israel itself. Even so, the movie doesn’t need, or lean on, such grand symbolism. In fact, one of its greatest pleasures comes from watching just how wide the spectrum of protest runs. The fire-breathing passion of the settlers is juxtaposed with people who frivolously spray-paint the town they are leaving with images of surf waves. Resistance is political, but it can also be playful, mindless and accidental, and Hootnick gamely shows it all.
“Unsettled” has a few things in common with another Israel-themed film that won an award in Park City this year, the Sundance movie “Sweet Mud,” a 1970s-set feature about a young boy on a kibbutz growing up with a mentally ill mother and uncaring kibbutz neighbors. As in “Unsettled,” external drama stresses the ideals of a society-within-a-country (and a country built on idealism, at that). But where the conceit of “Sweet Mud” — cruelty in a supposed utopia — feels manipulative, “Unsettled” never comes up less than emotionally pure.
The movie’s most poignant scenes come as the soldiers sit down at the table of a settler family refusing to leave their home. They are there to listen, to empathize, but, ultimately, to coax them to leave. “We were all in the army, too. That’s what makes this so difficult for us,” one of the settlers tells a soldier. “And we have trouble putting our head on the pillow at night, too,” the soldier responds. “But this will make Israel safer.” The scene offers a moment of unlikely intimacy as characters both play and transcend their assigned roles. Soon after, the soldiers take the settlers by their arms and escort them out of their home and into an army convoy, their interaction reflective of the conflict itself: ambiguous, bleak and filled with small moments of humanity.
Steven Zeitchik is a staff reporter at Variety.
For more information about “Unsettled,” please visit www.unsettledmovie.com.
This story "A Documentary Wrings Poetry From Politics" was written by Steven Zeitchik.