Her work covers the security wall Israel has built around Bethlehem
By Agnieszka Krawczynski
The B.C. Catholic
Caption: Executive producer Wael Kabbani stands with Sansour before a screening at the Rio Theatre. Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic.
When a filmmaker travelled to Bethlehem to create a documentary about the world's most famous "little town," she didn't realize it would change her life.
"Initially, I didn't know what my subject was," filmmaker Leila Sansour told 110 audience members after a showing of Open Bethlehem at The Rio Theatre in Vancouver Sept. 26.
"It's one of these films that takes strange turns and ends up changing the filmmaker."
Sansour, maker of Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army, arrived in Palestine with plans for a one-year stay.
She wanted to film a documentary about the massive security wall that Israel had been building in and around the little town since the early 2000s.
Standing as high as eight metres tall and in some areas topped with electric or barbed wire, the controversial wall is a barrier that, it was said, was to protect Israel from Palestinian attackers.
"I thought I would like to create, at the very least, a historic document of the building of the wall and its effect on the city," Sansour said.
She drove around Palestine in a red, beat-up family car, trying to get close-ups of the wall and setting up interviews with locals who were losing homes, jobs, and farmland because of the imposing, graffiti-decorated structure.
While rolling film, she found herself asking: "Why am I just filming it rather than doing something against it?"
That question led her to launch a travel agency, and then a campaign to raise awareness about the wall, to attract more tourists, and to bring about peace. "We want to see a free Palestine. There's no way I could stop wanting that. I want my city to be open again."
Sansour was born in Moscow to a Russian mother and Anton Yousseff Sansour, a loyal Palestinian and later the founder of Bethlehem University.
"I grew up hearing stories" about the little town of Bethlehem, Sansour said. "It became a fairy tale for me."
Her family moved back to Palestine in the 1970s, but the town Sansour lived in was vastly different from her father's fairy tales. Because of the violence, the arrest of her father, and tight security, she left at age 17.
When she returned to film Jeremy Hardy (released in 2003) and Open Bethlehem (2014), security was still an issue.
"You were not allowed to go anywhere near the building sites," she said. The wall is still under construction in some areas. "Every bit of filming that shows the wall, or shows people, or shows houses was really a stolen moment."
Sansour taped heartbreaking stories from residents whose homes and livelihoods were seriously affected by the security wall. One was Khalil, a man who once thought of himself as the "King of Bethlehem."
For 40 years he ran a bustling shop at the entrance to the town. As the wall closed in on his store and home, he lost his customers, view, and access. It took seven attempts for Sansour successfully to sneak a camera past security guards and capture his story on camera. He called himself the "Beggar of Bethlehem."
Others, including Sansour's own family members, also felt trapped by the wall. Despite their loyalty to their city and their home, still riddled with bullet holes from past conflicts, they left their homeland in tears. Sansour stayed behind.
The one-year project turned into five years, then seven, and Sansour found herself launching a campaign named Open Bethlehem.
She became the protagonist of her own documentary as she sought supporters and opportunities to spread the word about the wall across Palestine, the U.S., and the U.K.
She created a "passport" to Bethlehem, encouraging people around the globe to become "citizens" and advocates for peace. Some of the first people to receive the passport were Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
"Open Bethlehem is a non-violent attempt to save a city that belongs to many in the world," Bishop Tutu has said. "It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation."
Sansour, who had fled Bethlehem as a teen, found herself becoming one of its greatest promoters. She welcomed people from around the world to visit its religious sites, eat its food, learn about its history, and hope the wall comes down.
Because of its unique place in history, Bethlehem "always had visitors. We were always open to the world."
Executive producer Wael Kabbani called Open Bethlehem intelligent and powerful.
"You don't really see things like this on mainstream media, so it was very important for me to support a film and a filmmaker that was actually telling a side of the story that you don't really get to see."
Journalist and author Hadani Ditmars, who has been writing about the Middle East and the plight of Christians there for years, organized the Vancouver screening.
"I'm very keen to support initiatives like this that are grassroots, interfaith, and human-rights oriented," she told The B.C. Catholic.
Sansour's unique approach is one of "radical hospitality," she added. "I really admire her courage and her tenacity and her vision for a larger peace and reconciliation movement in the region."
The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace is also supporting the film, and has organized screenings in other parts of the country.
"It's part of our education and awareness-raising about the situation in Palestine," said Katrina Laquian, animator for in-Canada programs, who was at the screening.
"We've been supporting some projects in the Palestinian territory since 1967," including promoting peaceful living and security for people who have been affected by Israel-Palestine conflict.
Sansour's grassroots approach "definitely falls in line with what we're founded on."