Arts & Culture

Adam Hootnick Talks about “Unsettled,” His Documentary on the Disengagement from Gaza

Unsettled, an award-winning independent documentary about the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, opened this month at theaters in NYC and LA. I saw the film in January, at Limmud NY, and called it "amazing." The movie follows six young Israelis in … Read More

By / May 20, 2008

Unsettled, an award-winning independent documentary about the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, opened this month at theaters in NYC and LA. I saw the film in January, at Limmud NY, and called it "amazing." The movie follows six young Israelis in the weeks leading up to the disengagement: Three who live in settlements inside Gaza and don't want to leave, two soldiers who will have to remove the settlers, and a peace activist who's pro-disengagement. It's fascinating, poignant and surprisingly fun. Last week I asked director Adam Hootnick about his experiences making the film, watching people's reactions, and making all-important decisions about the soundtrack (he used to work for MTV.) Here's what he had to say.

I first heard about this film from a woman who went to my yoga studio in Nashville. I was wearing a shirt with Hebrew on it and she said, “Are you Jewish? Did you see Unsettled at the Nashville Film Festival?” She wasn’t Jewish, but had been really affected by it, and really wanted to talk about it. What have you found to be the most surprising and interesting reactions you’ve gotten to your film?

That’s a great story – those are the responses that I find most exciting, if not surprising. I guess it’s not surprising because I always believed that this was not just a Jewish story, not just an Israeli story, and not even just a Middle East story (even though it would be hard to convince theatrical distributors and broadcasters of that….) It’s a story about conflict resolution, and about the fact that human situations are rarely black and white. This is a story about a group of people who are all supposed to be on the same side, but it’s not that simple. It’s a story about people finding ways to not kill each other. So I have not been surprised to find that people from a lot of backgrounds – a former Pakistani ambassador, rabbis, professional negotiators, the Egyptian guy who approached me after a screening to give me a hug – believe this is a story that can have an impact.

How did you come to this project? How long did you spend preparing and how long were you shooting?

I had lived in Israel for a year after college, teaching at the American school there and then working at NBC News in Tel Aviv. Most of my friends were Israeli guys around the same age as I was. They were just out of the army (pretty much everyone has to serve in the IDF) but otherwise they were just like my American friends (almost none of whom went to the military) – they listened to the same music, did the same stuff in their free time. As it became clear that the withdrawal was going to happen, I started thinking about what it would be like for my friends to be sent on this mission against other Israelis. I wondered about the American parallel as well: what it would be like if the US Army was sent to clear out a county of Texas to turn the land over to Mexico? Even without all the religious and geopolitical overtones present in the Middle East, what would it be like to be a soldier sent on a mission to take people from your own country out of their homes?

Having worked for several years as a producer at MTV, telling stories about young people in conflict, I realized this was probably going to be a very compelling story. And, of course, there was also a deeper level, a universal question about how to reconcile religion and democracy when the two seem incompatible. Obviously that’s not just a question in Israel. In terms of preparation, it all happened pretty fast. I didn’t make the decision to leave until May, and I flew to Israel in July. I was over there shooting for two months.

Did you have any expectations for how things were going to go during the pullout? Were you particularly surprised by any of the things you saw?

I had no idea what to expect. In retrospect everything looks like it went smoothly, but in June of 2005 the protests across the country were getting intense – people throwing oil and tire spikes onto highways, riot police, water cannons, etc. There were rumors about settlers stockpiling weapons to resist the evacuation. So nobody knew what was going to happen.

Almost everything I saw and experienced surprised me. A few things were negative, including the rare episodes of serious physical violence I saw during the pullout, and seeing some Israelis resort to Holocaust symbolism and calling other Israelis Nazis. But the vast majority of the surprises were incredibly uplifting. I was amazed at the willingness of people on all “sides” of this issue to open up their lives to me, sacrificing their privacy at some of the hardest moments they had ever faced, because they believed it was so important to try to tell the outside world who they were and what they were going through. I was inspired by witnessing, again and again and again, the spectacle of people who responded to this conflict, even in its most intense moments, by saying, essentially, “I hate what you are doing, but I don’t hate you.”

There is a scene that didn’t make the film (because of time constraints) where one of the soldiers goes into a house and meets three guys who are about to be evicted, and they ask to exchange phone numbers with all of the soldiers because they want to try to stay in touch afterward to try to make sure they don’t end up on opposite sides of a battle within Israeli society. These moments of trust and dialogue really bolstered my faith in humanity – I feel very lucky to have witnessed them.

What was the hardest part to shoot?

Two days were hardest. The first was the day the army first went to try to deliver eviction notices, when I saw some of the most violent scuffles take place. Until I saw people start clawing at each other, I had never processed how scared I was that people might start hurting each other. Suddenly I was overcome, more than anything, by sadness, and I just had to put the camera down for a few minutes. I called my co-producer and co-cinematographer, Mickey Elkeles, who is this big, soft-spoken former soldier who had been injured in combat a number of times, figuring he’d tell me to toughen up. He was a little choked up, too. The second was the day I watched one of my characters – who by this time I knew quite well – being removed from her home. Regardless of how you feel about the political issues, it’s a complicated moment, and I wrestled with a lot of questions about my own presence there, putting my camera in people’s faces while this was happening.

How did you choose the six people who you focus on in this film?

I approached it the same way I approached casting any story I did at MTV. I wanted to find regular kids who represented a cross-section of the backgrounds and perspectives that existed, to show what it was like to be one of the young people at the front lines of this conflict where, at least in theory, there was no enemy.

There are some unexpectedly funny moments in this film. When I saw it at Limmud NY everyone was in hysterics as we watched an American reporter try to give the same rehearsed speech over and over as he was pushed forward in a sea of settlers. Were there any other moments when you found yourself laughing unexpectedly?

I was laughing pretty much anytime I was with Lior, the long-haired Gaza surfer-lifeguard.
I think in the two months I was shooting the film I only saw him wearing a shirt three times. And usually he was wearing a speedo, which is always funny. Maybe it’s especially funny in Gaza.

In many ways I found Ye’ela to be the most interesting character in the film. Her sister was killed in a terrorist bombing, but she was working to return Gaza to the Palestinians. Her situation was so extraordinary, but somehow her message of reconciliation was less articulate and intense than the settlers protesting the situation. And Tamar and Yuval, the other two pro-disengagement characters, both also seemed to be very ambivalent about their positions.

Did you see that as a pattern across the board? The people who were anti-disengagement were vehement and passionate, and the people who were pro disengagement had more ambivalence?

I think there was definitely more ambivalence on the part of people who were pro-disengagement. While most of them believed it was wrong to have an ongoing settlement and military presence in Gaza, they were not positive that this decision would lead to peace, in the short term or the long term. They were more likely to frame their position in pragmatic terms, rather than emotional ones. They also were not being removed from their homes, and not forced to confront religious convictions that they considered sacred and inviolable, as was the case with many disengagement opponents.

However, I strongly disagree with the characterization that Ye’ela was less articulate, particularly given that she was speaking in a second language. (If her communication in English is unclear, that is my fault as a filmmaker for asking her to communicate in my first language rather than her own.) But I think that when she talks about why she favors compromise with Palestinians, even after Palestinian terrorists killed her sister, and why she believes settlements in Gaza unreasonably put soldiers at risk, how she doesn’t understand how a settler could face the mother of a soldier killed defending settlements, she is quite lucid and intense. No less so than is Meir, the lifeguard and religious student, when he explains that while he believes in peace with Arabs, the Torah is the only true religious text, and negotiation on the borders of Israel can never be permitted.

I know you worked as a producer for MTV, and there’s a lot of really interesting music in ‘Unsettled.’ How did you choose the songs you wanted for this film?

The music is like a seventh character, in a way. I wanted to use a lot of Israeli pop, rock, funk, and hip hop, because in a way it might communicate to young American viewers how much we overlap with other cultures. The hip hop and rock anthems are approachable to viewers who might never have heard a Middle Eastern sound, but can dig something that’s a little bit foreign. And as soon as I heard the lyrics to Matisyahu’s “Youth” – I knew that song had to be in this film. Fortunately, he agreed.

Is there a message you want people to walk away with when they leave ‘Unsettled’?

Not really. Except that I hope people will see something they hadn’t seen before, and have some stereotypes dented a little bit. I hope they will see that people sometimes can resolve painful, passionate disagreements without killing each other. I hope they will think about how they would respond if they were in the shoes of someone else. All the typical indie-filmmaker stuff.

Where are the next few places you’ll be screening the film?

NYC, at the Pioneer Theater, starting Friday May 9th, and LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall 3, starting Friday May 16th. People who aren’t in one of those cities can get it on DVD now, too.