Filmmaker stars Bethlehem as model of diversity in Middle East

Fri Sep 26, 2014 7:34pm EDT
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By Belinda Goldsmith

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Palestinian filmmaker Leila Sansour returned to Bethlehem to make a film about her home town, she had no idea she would end up running a campaign to put the ancient city on the world map as a model for diversity in the Middle East.

Sansour left Bethlehem as a teenager in 1983, disdainful of its size and determined never to return, but retraced her footsteps in 2004 to make a film about the city as a tribute to her late father, Anton Sansour, founder of Bethlehem University.

Returning to the city that gave birth to Christianity and is on the occupied West Bank, she found herself drawn into a campaign opposing Israel's construction of an eight-meter (26 ft) high barrier weaving through the West Bank and Bethlehem.

Israel began building the wall in 2002 after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, citing security. Palestinians see the wall as a symbol of Israeli oppression that deprives them of land where they want to establish an independent state.

Sansour spent four years building a campaign called Open Bethlehem to promote the heritage of the city and to push for the wall to come down. But funding dried up so instead she decided to return to what she knew best - film making.

The result, that took several years in the making, is a 90-minute documentary, "Open Bethlehem", drawing from 700 hours of original and archival footage telling Sansour's story about her fight for Bethlehem.

Releasing the film this week, Sansour said the time was right to put the world spotlight back on Bethlehem, a city proud of its diversity, and urged people to visit her home town and to apply for a symbolic Bethlehem passport set up by her campaign.

"We want to use Bethlehem to highlight the damage that is being caused in the whole Middle East region, we want people to see it with their own eyes," Sansour told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.   Continued...