The idea of an Israeli film-maker – who is opposed to the occupation – and decides to embed herself in a West Bank settlement sounds like an act of deliberate provocation.
But Iris Zaki, who moved to the Tekoa settlement for a month to make her first feature-length documentary, Unsettling, prefers to think of it more as “lighting a fire to start the journey”.
Appearing on camera in eye-opening conversations with settlers, the self-described
leftist made Unsettling as part of her doctorate degree in media arts at Royal Holloway.
Her latest project follows two shorter films, My Kosher Shifts, about being an outsider at an Orthodox Jewish hotel in Golders Green, and her award-winning Women in Sink, filmed at an Arab hairdresser’s in Haifa.
Along the way, Zaki developed an “abandoned camera” technique, where the device is left unmanned to make it less obtrusive,which became the focus of her academic studies.
“My films are about ‘Iris talking to people,’” she says. “It’s all about making the interaction as close as it could be if there wasn’t a camera, and making people who don’t know me talk right away, open up, and forget about the film-making process.”
With Unsettling, she wanted to show the effectiveness of her approach in a more
extreme environment filled with “the political tension between me and the group I am documenting”.
She chose Tekoa after a journalist introduced Zaki to a settler called Matanya, who happily agreed to go on the journey with her.
“He doesn’t give a f***,” Zaki laughs. “He was born there and grew up there. He has a farm, and he knows the Palestinians around [there]. I think he liked the idea that it would bring life to Tekoa. He was going to get Iris sitting there and upsetting people. For him it’s like a game.”
Established in 1976, and nestled serenely in the Judean hills surrounded by Arab villages, Tekoa has a “hippy vibe”, says Zaki.
The community is a mix of secular and religious Jews, and includes artists, musicians, and film-makers. Rabbi Menachem Froman, the late peace activist, lived in Tekoa and his daughter-in-law, Michal, who was stabbed by a Palestinian youth and forgave her attacker, is among those interviewed by Zaki.
On the surface, Tekoa looks idyllic: children run around barefoot; families hang out together; and a festival promotes peace and love.
Zaki, though, makes us feel the “dissonance” she felt “between the Israeli hippy and pastoral lifestyle” and “the consequences of being there”.
Armed soldiers walk among the settlers, while violence intrudes in the form of a radio report about the wrongful killing of a Palestinian teenager by the IDF, and then later the murder of a settler’s father, Rabbi Michael Mark, by a Palestinian gunman. The latter hit Zaki hard. Rabbi Mark’s daughter, who lived on the same street as her in Tekoa, had reached out to the film-maker when others had tried to ostracise and kick her out of a WhatsApp group after learning she was against the occupation.
“I went to the funeral,” Zaki recalls. “That weekend, I was angry. And sad.” She talks about what happened in the film “because it was part of my experience”, adding: “I tried to show how it’s not normal to live in this area.”
Surprisingly, not all settlers feel entirely comfortable there. Zaki meets a rabbi’s hardcore- nationalist granddaughter, originally from Hebron, who cheerfully accepts being called fascist.
Others, though, express their unease or ambivalence about the status quo in the West Bank.
“They’re second generation or younger. Their parents wouldn’t even agree with the word ‘occupation’, but they talk about it.”
Although Zaki sees this as a positive step, she believes the fact they still choose to live in a settlement makes Unsettling more “disturbing”.
“I don’t think it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, there are nice people there. They want to have nice meetings with their neighbour,’” she says.
“No, it is like the mechanism of apartheid, but they still live there. And they’re smart people. They’re not brainwashed religiously. So I think this in-between is even more disturbing than showing crazy people from Hebron.”
By giving the settlers a chance to speak freely, Zaki puts faces to people who are often damned with a single stroke in the media.
They are neither angels nor demons, just ordinary people with a range of opinions and needs.
Perhaps she has complicated the picture, I suggest.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she says. “But it’s good to complicate the picture, I think.”