Is this a command, a statement of fact, a cry for help? It is all three according to Leila Sansour’s hymn to her home town which she left at 17, to return to in 2004 to make her documentary film which took more than eight years to complete.
‘Open Bethlehem!’ is a poignant cry from inside an iconic city now so brutally incarcerated by a wall which runs against the very notion of everything that it stands for. Bethlehem has known tourism before the word was even invented. It has always welcomed strangers and has been home to diverse communities for centuries. Bethlehem has thrived from being an open city. So, this is a cry for help to the entire world, a small voice echoing against the might of insurmountable concrete walls that suffocate this little town. Oh little town of Bethlehem is indeed very small, it is now reduced to less than 13% of its original size and limited to its urban core due to Israel’s determination to annexe much of its lands and to appropriating them for the building of settlements recognised as illegal under international law. Today, Bethlehem is separated from its arable lands, from most of its landmarks and from Jerusalem.
Leila returns to her forlorn family home in Bethlehem, an unbelievably emotional journey she never thought she would undertake. Like her father, who studied maths at Moscow university, Leila was eager to leave Bethlehem to experience a bigger life abroad. But, not unlike him again, she returns home when the time is right. Her father, Anton Youssef Sansour, returned to take part in founding the University of Bethlehem. By the time she makes her journey he is no longer alive.
Filming over a period of ten years Leila chronicles the building of the wall on a land which takes your breath away in its beauty, it is as you imagine a heavenly biblical landscape to be, and in parts, is unchanged. She talks to people whose homes and lives are blighted by the wall creeping up on every side, and announces the disturbing death of one man we have followed, whose family has been established in the city for generations and who, literally, could no longer breathe.
Leila marshalls an army of religious, political and literary peacemakers throughout the world for whom Bethlehem holds a special place; Bishop Tutu and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Malala Yousafzai and Jimmy Carter, Raja Shehadeh and Irvine Welsh. By taking her film throughout the world, the message and the followers are growing, and by fashioning a beautiful symbolic Bethlehem Passport with its image of St George she has ensured that in these days of mass migration and statelessness, one passport is open to all.
The final image in the film of Leila sitting beside a single lit candle at the nativity church, her family having departed and gone to their lives elsewhere, is probably the most poignant image, the lit candle an emblematic Christian symbol from the Old Testament, reminds her of the weight of the past on her shoulders. Alongside the eternal flame there is a spirit that will always endure and find a way to fight for freedom.