There was a standing ovation last Wednesday, at the end of a preview screening of Leila Sansour's new documentary film: Open Bethlehem, at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington. Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg introduced the film and led a Q&A afterwards.
While many Christians will have been to the 'Holy Land', and spent days visiting places with such evocative names - the Sea of Galilee, Cana, Nazareth and Jerusalem - very often Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, is left out altogether - or tacked on to pilgrimage itineraries as a one-hour stop - a quick visit to the ancient Church of the Nativity followed by a trip round a gift shop, before dinner.
Once a thriving multicultural city, where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony for centuries, Bethlehem has been economically isolated for decades and is now being completely choked by the construction of the eight-metre high Separation Wall - twice the height of the Berlin Wall - that digs deeply into Palestinian territory, destroying people's homes, farmland and businesses. It is also becoming increasingly surrounded by huge illegal Israeli settlements - connected to each other by a labyrinth of private roads - inaccessible to Palestinians.
Using archive footage as well as contemporary interviews, the film shows the ‘little town’ struggling to survive, through the eyes of one of its oldest Christian families. Leila Sansour is the daughter of the founder of Bethlehem University.
The film has some beautiful vignettes. In one, Leila meets an elderly shopkeeper whose business is about to be cut off from Bethlehem by the wall. His business was in such a good location, he said, at one time, he felt like the king of Bethlehem. Now he has lost everything. We hear later that he has died. His widow will not be receiving any compensation. There's another very touching interview with a farmer who has just lost his livelihood as soldiers have come and cut down his olive grove - with trees that were 70 years old.
This does sound gloomy, but the film manages to keep upbeat. Leila, with her family and colleagues, set about organising a campaign to save the heritage and culture of Bethlehem by promoting tourism. They come up with the idea of inviting tourists to stay overnight and attend an evening Mass at the Church of the Nativity.
Later they decide to issue a 'Bethlehem passport' - a symbolic document which pledges that the bearer 'is a citizen of Bethlehem; that they recognise this ancient city provides a light to the world; and to all people who uphold the values of a just and open society; that they will remain a true friend of Bethlehem through its imprisonment, and that they will strive to keep the ideals of Bethlehem alive as long as the wall stand; we ask you to respect the bearer of this passport and to let them pass freely.'
The first recipients of the passport are church leaders: Pope Benedict, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Many more VIPs follow.
At the end of the documentary, although the campaign is running low on resources, it continues. The film concludes with a song composed by Leila: 'Shine On' - sung by David McAlmont - a perfect Christmas single if it is released!
Melvyn Bragg commented: “On my visit in 2012, I was moved by the contrasts Bethlehem presents. This film explores the personal and broader story of a holy city and the struggle to ensure its survival, capturing the experience of life in Bethlehem today.”
Channel Four News presenter Jon Snow, described the film as: “One of the most remarkable and moving documentaries I have seen about this unreported story. The tragedy of the Palestinians encapsulated in the life of one family and one town – Bethlehem. See the film, then go to Bethlehem and see for yourself.”
Very sad, but warm, funny and informative, this film is essential viewing for anyone planning a visit to Bethlehem.
If you would like to hold a screening in your parish or school, or for more information, see: www.openbethlehem.org/.
View the trailer here: www.openbethlehem.org/open_bethlehem_trailer.mp4