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Film hopes to open up Bethlehem

12 December 2014


Walled in: the Christian film director Leila Sansour in Bethlehem

Walled in: the Christian film director Leila Sansour in Bethlehem

MILLIONS will sing about the "little town of Bethlehem" this Christmas, but a new documentary hopes to bring home to audiences the reality of life today in the Palestinian city.

Open Bethlehem, a 90-minute film by the Christian director Leila Sansour, who was born in Bethlehem, was launched last Friday. Ms Sansour said that her film sought to show how the Israeli security wall was strangling the life out of the city.

Drawing on more than 700 hours of footage, Open Bethlehem was not just a campaign to bring down the barrier, but also an attempt show how Christians, Jews, and Muslims could live together, she said.

"Bethlehem historically has been a city shared by Christians and Muslims," she said. "The relationship has been quite good. Bethlehem is a model city for how good relationships have been between different communities. It was always . . . able to absorb newcomers."

Ms Sansour returned to the city in 2004 just as the Israeli authorities began building the concrete wall around Bethlehem, which is in places up to eight metres high. She had planned to spend a year making her film, but eventually stayed for eight years after getting drawn into the anti-wall campaign.

"It's got under my skin, I suppose. I had to do something. The campaign is about reaching out to explain the situation to decision-makers around the world. We wanted to reach out to churches. More importantly, we want Bethlehem to remain open. The city is being stifled," she said.

The security barrier makes travel between Bethlehem and Jerusalem very difficult, cutting off business, family, and religious contacts. Ms Sansour said that it was a "shock" for the Christians, especially as they were part of the same diocese as those in Jerusalem.

In addition, the wall does not follow the borders between the West Bank and Israel, but slices off chunks of Palestinian land, including the last Palestinian vineyard and valuable land that was to be used to build homes.

Part of the film is a series of interviews on the streets of London. Ms Sansour said she was astonished to discover that the majority of British people she spoke to were not sure if Bethlehem still existed.

"Bethlehem as a symbol lives in people's imagination as the birthplace of Jesus," she said. "I want to make sure that everybody feels like a stakeholder in the survival of Bethlehem and its values." Part of this effort is concentrated in the creation of a symbolic Bethlehem passport, which will act as an invitation to outsiders to visit the city. Tourism, often involving Christians, is now the main industry in Bethlehem.

"We ask people to visit so that Bethlehem remains an open city with a link to the world. It is more a campaign that tries to build a bridge with the world," she said.

Despite the previous good relations between Christians and Muslims, Ms Sansour said that tensions were increasing with the rise of Islamism in the region. "Growing political Islam is making everybody uncomfortable," she said.

Find out film screening times here: 


Watch the trailer here:




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