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‘We might not achieve a victory, but we at least can tell a story’

Festive lights in Bethlehem

Festive lights in Bethlehem.

As the last chocolates disappear from advent calendars and nostalgic renditions of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ fill the air, Leila Sansour is busily touring Britain’s cinemas with an invitation to viewers to see the celebrated and contested city in a new light.

Sansour is the daughter of a Russian mother and Palestinian father. Born in the former Soviet Union in 1966, she moved with her family to the occupied West Bank aged seven before escaping a decade later in search of a bigger world.

In 2002, Sansour was drawn back to Bethlehem to make her first feature film, Jeremy Hardy Versus the Israeli Army. As the Israeli authorities began building the separation wall, Sansour made plans to document its devastating impact on Bethlehem’s residents, but instead filmed a bittersweet account of her relationship with her father and with Palestine while spearheading a campaign to ‘Open Bethlehem’.

We met on a bright December morning in central London, where Sansour talked about her mother, her emotional connection to Palestine and the challenge of starring in her own documentary.

Why did you return to Palestine after your teenage getaway?

Probably because of a sense of duty in that I knew the situation and how unjust it was. My father [Anton Yousseff Sansour, founder of Bethlehem University] dedicated his life to the cause and I appreciated it but hadn’t wanted to participate in it. He died suddenly [in 1996] aged 58 and I felt quite haunted by him as a figure; he meant a great deal to me.

I returned to Bethlehem two years after making the film with Jeremy Hardy and when Israel had started constructing the wall; I wanted to document that huge and radical change to the city. I thought that even if we couldn’t stop it, we could explain and show the world what it meant and the impact that it might have on the Middle East. I went to Palestine believing that I was going to engage in a big project for a whole year. Little did I know that it was going to be eight years and, indeed, a lifelong commitment. I now feel that I belong in Bethlehem more than anywhere else – and I suppose this film took me back home.

Which came first, the idea for the campaign Open Bethlehem, or the film?

Initially I thought I would document Bethlehem during a critical year but with a personal touch. I was going to explain my relationship to my father and occasionally tell the story through my eyes. When I started the campaign we had to consider what that meant for the film. The film and the campaign kept on influencing each other until it became obvious that I needed to make the story about the really strange journey that happened to me.

It’s unusual for a director and producer to also be the star of a film. How did you balance these roles?

It was a difficult path to walk in many ways, and it meant that the film took longer. Once I knew that I had to tell my story, the film took on a new challenge. As a director you have to be honest, but as a person you are sensitive so it’s almost that you have a split personality. It took me a while to accept that I had to – the character had to – behave. At the end I did feel that the director triumphed, hopefully.

You often talk about returning to Bethlehem as a way to reconnect with your father, but when on the phone to your mother in the film she asks you what you are still doing in that ‘godforsaken place’. How has your mother influenced your view of Palestine?

That’s difficult to explain. My mother is a product of post-war Russia and she and my father were very different people. She is cautious of things and has never been particularly extravagant or adventurous. My father was easy-going and had that Middle Eastern spirit where life comes to you. I am probably closer in my outlook on life to my father than to my mother. I think that, at whatever cost, we should cast ourselves wide in life. We might break some bones but that’s okay. Maybe I broke a few too many making this documentary and my mother sensed that, so she had a point, but now I’m here, the film is out and I hope it will serve a purpose and advance the Palestinian cause.

Have Palestinians living in other parts of the West Bank had an opportunity to see the film? What do they think about it?

Not many people have seen it there and Palestinians are quite critical in general but we did show it in Bethlehem and I received positive feedback. Suddenly I’ve reconnected with just about everybody from my school that has read about it or watched it. The film is a vindication for what many of them experienced. Sometimes we might not achieve a victory but we at least can tell a story.

You have said that Christians in Palestine are always the first to leave in a crisis; why do you think that is?

Historically, cities like Bethlehem were about 90 to 95-per-cent Christian. As the original community of the city, they were the main recipients of all the wealth that Bethlehem was able to generate because of pilgrimage tourism. Muslims are slightly more recent inhabitants so they don’t own many of the shops or hotels. The moment there is unrest, many [Christians] have the funds to decide that they will start a life outside Palestine. Muslims also leave, like anyone else, but Christians are now a huge Diaspora – which is also a factor in them deciding to leave.

Do you think the political situation has changed much in Palestine during the last decade? Should the focus still be on Bethlehem?

I’m focused on Bethlehem because it might be better able to tell the story of Palestine and have a bigger voice in the world than other areas of it. But telling the story of Bethlehem is not just a magic wand that we can wave, we need to work hard. The situation constantly changes and this last decade has changed again, for the worse. It is becoming more hopeless and it is shocking how the Israeli authorities cannot see that they are bringing both of us down and stirring up an environment that almost imposes conflict and war. If they continue, then we will become totally intertwined as two people in this deadly embrace.

What does the future hold for you? Do you think you’ll go back to Palestine?

There was a point in my seventh year where I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m going to stay in Bethlehem’, but actually, now that I’m here [in Britain] to distribute the film and I’m not looking at the situation so much out of emotion, I’m not sure. My attachment is greatest to Palestine and no doubt I will be spending a lot of time there, but it’s necessary to occasionally recharge your batteries. You need to have some perspective on the world because you get hemmed in, in Bethlehem. I think I’m always going to have to be dividing my time in both. It suits me because I am a cosmopolitan kind of person, I like London and I have many friends here.

What is the next phase of the Open Bethlehem campaign?

We want to screen the film over and over again, in churches and cinemas across Britain, and next year in the US. We’re going to encourage people to join our movement and to become symbolic citizens of Bethlehem with a Bethlehem passport. Our message is that Bethlehem is a world city and belongs to everyone. With support, it can have a future. We hope to run workshops next year in Britain and the US so those interested can find out how they can explain the situation in Palestine using Bethlehem as a springboard. They can be ambassadors for Bethlehem. We also want to encourage visitors to the West Bank because we believe that the most important thing is that people see it with their own eyes. Watch the trailer of Open Bethlehem:

There will be more screenings of the film around Britain in January 2015. See the website for more details and how you can get involved in the campaign.


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