Monday, February 5, 2007

"Hot House" by Shimon Dotan: A Review

Approaching the miasma that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be a daunting and thankless job. Wading into that treacherous fog requires a steady focus and a sure hand. In Hot House, a new documentary and winner of The World Cinema Documentary Competition Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Shimon Dotan demonstrates that he is more than up to the task. Already recognized as a seasoned film artist with a number of dramatic movies to his credit, Hot House showcases Dotan’s smooth transition into the realm of the documentary.

Hot House offers us a rare glimpse behind the bars of several Israeli jails where Palestinian are detained. There are nearly 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails today. Most Israelis regard these “security prisoners” as murderers and criminals. In contrast, for most Palestinians they are seen as freedom or resistance fighters, heroes, and even martyrs. Their crimes range from assaults on fellow Palestinian “collaborators,” to aiding and abetting terrorists, to carrying out or masterminding terror attacks.

The film begins with fade-overs of one prisoner after another appearing in long steel ensconced corridors, announcing their names and their sentences. Many are serving multiple life sentences, in keeping with Israel’s custom of matching the number of victims murdered with the number of life sentences the perpetrator or accomplice of those attacks is serving (It should be noted that Israel does not have a death penalty—an exception was made for Adolph Eichmann in 1961).

From the early moments of the film, methodical pans across the cells and down the sparse corridors, synchronized with carefully chosen close-ups and the clinking and clanking of steel suggest that we are in the hands of mature film artist. Dotan proceeds to paint a picture of what life inside these jails is like for the prisoners, and what makes them tick. He enquires into the mindset of the inmates, gently probing their perspectives on the topical issues of the day as well their more encompassing world views. Dotan proves to be a master of unobtrusiveness, asking simple and open-ended questions. We learn that many of the prisoners are well-educated, often having studied in Israeli universities prior to their incarceration. Others are auto-didacts, reading widely while serving their time, sometimes tutored by fellow inmates. Palestinian prisoners pride themselves on their knowledge of Hebrew, the mother tongue of their keepers.

The prisoners speak freely and openly, with some notable exceptions. Some see the very real possibility of someday living side by side with their Jewish neighbors, in separate, mutually agreed upon states. Others voice their inherent distrust of Jews, and see peace between the two sides as unrealistic; at best, highly unlikely.

Interestingly, the Israeli authorities decided years ago to separate the rival Palestinian factions, with the adherents of the two major parties, Fatah and Hamas, housed strictly among their own. This has minimized frictions and reduced violence among inmates to remarkably low levels (part of this is also due to strictly enforced discipline and loyalty within ranks). The prisoners are allowed certain amenities, such as permission to cook according to their own cultural/culinary preferences in their own cells. Many shots inside those cells revealed very decent accommodations by prison standards. Cells were often adorned with colorful rugs, mats and wall-hangings, neatly arranged by the prisoners. Other segments of the film showed prayer halls with ample space for the prisoners to freely practice their faith. And aside from books, newspapers and journals, television was also readily available. Many of the interviewees attested to their keen interest in developments in the outside world. Viewers saw how the prisoners got regular infusions of news from Israeli television and print media, as well as Palestinian.

Both Fatah and Hamas maintain internal leadership within the prisons. They, and the rank and file of their respective movements had the opportunity to voice an array of opinions. Through the first half of the film, there were moments when I longed for Dotan to be more demanding of his interviewees. I was concerned that they were getting a pass on too many dubious pronouncements, like the oft repeated sound byte that if not for the ongoing occupation, they would no longer have any reason for resistance, as they put it. I yearned for Dotan to challenge them further, press them, or at least to provide the uninitiated of the audience with a larger context, for example, that the occupation was on the verge of extinction back in the Oslo years and most decisively in 2000 at Camp David (and later at Taba), if not for Palestinian intransigence.

But as the film progressed, I understood that Dotan was wise to employ restraint. While refraining from entering the fray himself, he gave free rein to his interviewees. It was left to the audience to judge the merit-or speciousness-of the prisoners’ claims. Dotan remained a largely invisible force in the film’s physics. At one point, in his interview with a major Hamas leader, he asks about the party’s willingness to accept the 1967 borders as viable boundaries. Dotan reminds the Hamas leader that he has he has been quoted as retracting that acceptance. The leader acknowledges that he has changed his mind, cackles for several chilling moments, and then after his ominous laughter subsides, he pauses and says something to the effect of, ‘in the future we will see what will be.’

Then, towards the end of the film, there is an interview with a female Hamas prisoner that is also quite revealing. The woman, a Palestinian television news anchor at the time, drove a suicide bomber to Yaffa Street in Jerusalem in August of 2001, where he carried out a horrendous bombing in a crowded Sbarro Pizzaria at lunchtime. Sixteen people were killed in the attack, and many more wounded. The prisoner’s testimony was eerie for its cold-blooded detachment. A vacuous smile rarely left her face. When Dotan quietly asked her if she knew how many children had been killed, she volunteered that she thought the number was three. He corrected her, noting that the actual number was eight. She seemed perversely delighted to hear this, and smiled again, saying, “really?”

Hot House presents glimmers of hope and as in the two above depictions, forebodings of despair. No doubt, both sides in this ongoing and tragic conflict will find things to both applaud and criticize. But Dotan was wise to let the prisoners (and to a much lesser degree, Israeli prison authorities) present their unexpurgated points of view. The viewer is free to draw his or her own conclusions, secure in the knowledge that he has not been manipulated by the biased leanings of the filmmaker. While this is not an easy concession for one like myself, who worries that too many of the uninitiated will not know enough of the history of this tragic conflict to make balanced and fair-minded judgments, in the end I’ll hesitantly make this concession to the greater good of neutrality.

Of course, much of this may prove moot, given that internecine violence continues to eat at the body and soul of Palestinian society. Still, films like Hot House hold fast to the best hopes for the future, when the two sides can once again sit down and contemplate their intertwined fates.

Director: Shimon Dotan
Screenwriter : Shimon Dotan
Executive Producer : Arik Bernstein Producers : Arik Bernstein, Yonatan Aroch, Dikla Barkai, Shimon Dotan Coproducer : Danny Rossner Cinematographers : Philip Bellaiche, Shai Goldman, Hanna Abu Sada Editor : Ayala ben Gad Music : Ron Klein

Director's Bio:
Shimon Dotan was born in Romania, grew up in Israel, and is currently working in Canada, Israel, and the United States. Dotan, a fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities at NYU, is an award-winning filmmaker with 10 feature films to his credit. His film The Smile of the Lamb received the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and the award for best director at the Israeli Academy Awards. Dotan has taught filmmaking at NYU, Tel Aviv University, and Concordia University in Montreal.

Film Contact
Arik BernsteinAlma Films

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