Trundling through checkpoints on a dusty West Bank road, an Israeli doctor sporting jaunty aviators points out the nearby settlement of Einav. In the 1960s it housed a paratrooper base, where he served as a medic. “I’m glad to see the base is gone,” he tells Ruth Walk, an Israeli documentarian and the director of “Border of Pain”. “As well it should be.”
These days, he crosses the border by minivan as a member of Physicians for Human Rights, which advocates for better healthcare in the occupied territories. Among other initiatives, the organization brings Israeli doctors to run medical clinics in different West Bank towns every Saturday.
When the minivan pulls into the village of A-Zebabde, the doctors install themselves in the local school. Though organized, the clinic is strikingly ad hoc: in many cases, the doctors are only able to commiserate and dispense painkillers. By midday, the minivan’s stock of medicine is depleted, and the group’s leader has to dip into the next week’s supply. The camera lingers on the empty plastic bins in one of the prosaic, almost ugly tableaus Walk prefers to more aestheticized ones.
Traversing Israel and the occupied territories, “Border of Pain” shows how physical borders have spawned a bureaucratic morass and made medical care for Palestinians precarious at best, inaccessible at worst. Walk follows doctors and activists with an unobtrusive, sometimes wobbly camera, creating the impression that she’s filming spontaneously, perhaps with one hand. Often filming her subjects from afar or behind their backs, Walk trains a diffident gaze on them: she’s neither giving nor withholding approval, recording events but not presuming to make sense of them.
The film opens before dawn in the home of Yuval Roth, who brews a quick Nescafe before heading to the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. It’s here that Gazans enter Israel for medical care, but the distance between checkpoint and hospitals is long and serviced largely by expensive taxis. Roth began informally driving Palestinian patients to and from appointments in the 1990s. Now, he’s in charge of Derech Hachlama (Road to Recovery), an organization that marshals dozens of Israeli volunteers to do the same.
Roth is in for a long wait at Erez, where he’s scheduled to pick up Siham, an elderly cancer patient. Between Hamas, Fatah, and Israeli checkpoints, it takes her four hours to pass from one side to the other. Despite the delay, Siham strides outside undaunted, wheeling a luggage cart with one hand and fielding phone calls from her concerned children with the other. But she becomes tearful while relating the Kafkaesque process of securing permits for each doctor’s visit and purchasing medicine on her clerk’s salary, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) has recently slashed by 40%.
Siham is one of more than 25,000 Gazans who requested permits for medical treatment in 2017. While the Israeli government granted about half the requests, it left about 11,000 unanswered.
The flow of patients between the West Bank and Israeli hospitals is somewhat less restricted - about 200 come through daily. At this border the film shadows Dalia Bassa, an Israeli administrator who coordinates Palestinian permits - a complex process, since each patient must obtain not only Israeli clearance but a guarantee from the PA to pay for their treatment.
“So it’s like a business?” Walk asks. It’s a rare intervention for the filmmaker, who usually lets her subjects speak unprompted.
“All hospitals are businesses,” says Bassa, adding that Palestinian patients usually end up costing more than they pay, since they visit hospitals for complex treatments unavailable in Gaza or the West Bank.
The film hops somewhat abruptly between its six segments, which cover almost every possible permutation of border crossing. A young Gazan surgeon travels to Tel Aviv for an enrichment course, snapping a selfie for her mother and marveling that the electricity stays on all night. Traveling in the other direction, Arab-Israeli doctors cross the now-familiar Erez checkpoint to bring supplies to Gaza City (while Israeli doctors can visit the West Bank, only Palestinian doctors with Israeli citizenship can go to Gaza). When relatives accompany children for long-term treatment, they live in a particularly absurd limbo, granted entry permits but prohibited from leaving the hospital. These escorts, often grandmothers, sometimes stay in a ward for months at a time.
In films about social injustice, individual feel-good narratives can prevent viewers from grappling with a system’s breadth and intractability. Walk avoids this pitfall by focusing on the limits of personal action. Conducting examinations in schoolrooms, the doctors of in “Border of Pain” radiate sympathy and good intentions — but also their powerlessness and inability to provide comprehensive care under the circumstances.
Of all the subjects, Bassa plays the largest role in providing access to Israeli hospitals, but she’s also the only one to cast herself as a savior, displaying photos of herself hugging Palestinian children whom “I brought over.” Her behavior emerges as unsettling, recalling the oft-mocked American voluntourist instead of a civil servant fulfilling the requirements of her job.
In contrast, when Walk asks Roth why he started Road to Recovery, he shrugs and quietly relates that his brother was murdered by Hamas agents while on reserve duty in Gaza. Other profiles explain what the film leaves unsaid: that Roth began meeting with Palestinians who had lost family in the conflict, saw an unmet need, and filled it.
Faced with tragedy, Roth made an admirable decision to bridge divides where he could. But this film isn’t about the heroism of bridging divides. Instead, it asks why such heroism is necessary at all.
“Border of Pain,” will make its international debut on November 20 at 6:15 PM as part of the Marlene Meyerson JCC’s Other Israel Festival. Watch the trailer here:
Irene Katz Connelly is an intern at the Forward. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.