“Open Bethlehem is a nonviolent attempt to save a city that belongs to the world. It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bethlehem Passport Holder.
Leila Sansour, Film Maker and Director of “Open Bethlehem”, had a Palestinian father and Russian mother , and spent her very early years in Russia, with her father in exile, but the family went to live there in her early teen years. Her father was a well-known and respected Professor, and committed to standing up to fighting the Palestinian cause. However, the fairy-tale like Bethlehem of which her father talked was met with a much harsher reality when they returned to live there, and Leila tired of restrictions. At 17, she left to study, settled in the USA , and married an Englishman. She is best known for her feature‐length documentary, ‘Jeremy Hardy versus the Israeli Army’ 2003, a tragicomic film shot with celebrated British comedian Jeremy Hardy. The film received four‐and five‐star reviews in the national press before its release across cinemas in the UK and its tour in the US as part of Amnesty International’s Roaming Film Festival.
Time passes, as Palestine became a distant memory, until her father died prematurely in the late 1990s. She had felt an affiliation with his cause that she had not fully carried out, and resolved to return. In the meantime, increasing Israeli settlements, roads and the separation wall had caused immense, ugly 8-metre high segregation in Bethlehem, intent on keeping Palestinians out. Upon her return, extensions of the wall were being planned, blocking access to the Shrine of Rachel, Biblical matriarch, and also some residents’ shops and homes which happened to be nearby.
Filming was not allowed, people dared not speak out against the orders, but friends’ and inhabitants’ lives were being torn apart as they were forced to leave. In addition, military checkpoints meant that only limited people could enter or leave with permits, if granted, and often found themselves separated from work, family, business by the wall, and unable to leave. Having seen a film about the Berlin Wall, and desperate attempts to get over or under it, only to be shot if you managed, this whole set-up is eerily similar..and worse.
In a bid to move urgently, Leila, family and friends set up the “Open Bethlehem” project to start producing the film, get tourists to visit Bethlehem – visitors were whisked in and out on Israeli buses, usually going to the Church of the Nativity, often without knowing they had set foot in Palestine – and she wanted visitors to stay and breathe life back into Bethlehem, spend time in hotels and get to know a bit of Palestine. She managed to obtain some outside funding, which was only made available if her aims were non-political. As the separation wall-building moved on so fast, she decided to create the “Bethlehem passport” which supporters could buy to show support and solidarity. British MPS and Church dignitaries got involved, some visited Bethlehem, and the international press fed off the stories. Leila also returned to the USA where she had some great successes too. She had the backing of the Mayor and President of Bethlehem throughout.
But funding was running out, and all this had been at immense cost personally and financially -her British husband was rarely able to visit and public interest seemed to have waned. When her cousin, who at one point begged her to stay and help set up the campaign, was forced to make a decision to leave for the sake of her kids’ schooling, Leila was left on her own. The film ends with scenes of her still in Bethlehem, in her family home set upon a hill, as it snows, and she feels is is her father telling her to stay and continue fighting. Continued sales of the Bethlehem Passports, costs of film showings, and donations to www.openbethlehem.org are still three of the main ways to support the cause.