Leila Sansour produces and directs a new documentary film, “Open Bethlehem” which is about the birthplace of Jesus, and these days, she shows this ancient city falling beneath the light of a very different kind of star. Preview screening 24 September 2014 at Royal Geographic Society, with official debut in the UK scheduled for Christmas-time 2014.
‘Open Bethlehem’ director Leila Sansour asks viewers, See with your own eyes
More than a travelogue, “Open Bethlehem” (2014, about 2 hours) is a film about an ancient place, a close neighbour to the other holy city of Jerusalem, the birthplace of Jesus. When one hears the word “Bethlehem”, the first thought that probably occurs has something to do with babies in mangers, wise men, angels, and stars. An idea of holidays and gift-giving follows, with snow of course, because it’s just not Christmas without snow!
If you haven’t been there, you might imagine this quaint village perched atop a rocky hill, shepherds and flocks scrambling about, maybe a water well or two attended by a dark haired beauty in long embroidered robe filling a clay jar with this most precious essence, then placing the vessel on the crown of her head before gliding away.
For the people who live in Bethlehem, well, those romantic visions of a sleepy idyllic little town have been utterly crushed under a nightmare which ensnares the entire population in between rows of grey slabs like mouthfuls of horrible teeth, gobbling up more and more of Bethlehem by the minute:
Although director Leila Sansour longs to remember her late father’s hometown differently, “Open Bethlehem” depicts the Bethlehem that she wants people to see now… on the verge of extinction, she says, “… a little town fighting for survival”, where even getting into the Christmas spirit can be a challenge.
Perhaps more urgent than the film is Sansour’s “Open Bethlehem Campaign“, which she founded in 2005 as a means to promote Bethlehem as a tourist destination but more crucially, she says, it is the first step in “… a lasting peace settlement between Palestine and Israel using Bethlehem as a doorway for global engagement.”
One way to join the campaign yourself is to obtain an official Bethlehem Passport, thus becoming an ambassador for and an honorary citizen of Bethlehem. With the Bethlehem Passport and Open Bethlehem Campaign, Sansour hopes to encourage first-timers as well as repeat visitors to go there.
Sansour wants travellers to the Holy Land to know that Bethlehem welcomes everyone and that the whole town has much more to offer in terms of culture and history, beyond the Church of the Nativity, often the only site in Bethlehem that traditional tours let people see… a regular practice that deliberately and completely skips any of the other historical/cultural/hospitality sites just metres away.
Little side story: I’ve seen this silliness myself while enjoying an Arabic coffee in one of the several delightful cafes across from the Church; run by Israeli-owned tour companies, the large coach trundles up to the site, a hundred people scuttle into the shrine as quickly as they can, and out again, back to the bus double-time clutching handbags and cameras to their chest because, we were told by the manager, “they are terrified… they were told they would be attacked by The Arabs”. The visitors don’t stay long, and they never get a chance to go to the nearby shops or restaurants. Such a shame they missed out on such delicious coffee, hand-wrought locally-made crafts, and charming shopkeepers… and the superior location from which to take a photo of the Church from across the plaza.
“Open Bethlehem” could be the most important film released for Christmas holidays… it’s one of those films that proves despite unbeatable odds, there is still hope, and it goes to show that positive change can happen when bridges are built instead of walls.
And like Nelson Mandela once said:
More links and information
- Learn more about ‘Open Bethlehem’ (2014) – scheduled debut in the UK at Christmas 2014, in the US in 2015
- Read about the “Open Bethlehem Campaign” – “…a nonviolent attempt to save a city that belongs to many in the world. It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.” – Rev. Desmond Tutu
- Learn how to obtain your own Bethlehem Passport – “a symbolic citizenship of the city of Bethlehem that is issued by the Open Bethlehem campaign in partnership with the Governorate of Bethlehem”
- View/download Open Bethlehem brochure – September 2014 [PDF] – information about Open Bethlehem campaign, visiting Bethlehem, Bethlehem Passport and more.
- Overview on Electronic Intifada by Sarah Irving, “‘Open Bethlehem’ film documents fight against wall, settlements” – 30 August 2014, with film trailer
- Not to be confused with this film thriller, “Bethlehem” (2013) directed by Yuval Adler – “Tells the story of the complex relationship between an Israeli Secret Service officer and his teenage Palestinian informant.” (IMDB synopsis)
- Related post on kelise72.com: “The jewel of all cities – must-see ‘Jerusalem 3-D’ now showing at the IMAX, Southbank, London”
More about visiting Bethlehem and Palestine
- Learn more about alternative travel programmes on “Open Bethlehem – Visit” page
- Palestine Solidarity Campaign: “Get Involved – Visit Palestine” – a comprehensive list of organisations that organise “fact-finding” trips, study Arabic, promote twin cities, student exchanges, and more.
- Siraj Centre based in Beit Sahour (Bethlehem) hosts a great number of alternative tours including faith-based walks (“sarhat” in Arabic) and other cultural programmes
- Walk Palestine faith-based as well as cultural walking/hiking tours
- Bike Palestine, a week-long bicycle journal that starts in Jenin and goes through Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho and other towns. Read more about my own Bike Palestine trip in 2012.
- Friends of Sabeel UK, North America and Canada organise yearly Witness Visits to Palestine
More event details: The first UK Bethehem Passport Ambassador’s Seminar is scheduled for 8th November 2014, at Amos Trust, St Clement’s Eastcheap, 1 St Clements Court, Clements Lane, London EC4N 7HB. Clink the link to contact Open Bethlehem Campaign for more information, or: phone +44(0)20 372 5349 or email firstname.lastname@example.org