Directed by Shimon Dotan
First Run/Icarus Films, 2006
Some documentaries are a picnic: entertaining, witty, informative, leaving one with a feeling of satisfied acquisition. And then there are those that get under your skin, tearing your thinking up bit by bit – enlightening but disquieting and disturbing. “Hothouse,” the aptly named new documentary from acclaimed Israeli documentary filmmaker Shimon Dotan is just such a piece, raising almost as many questions it answers as it explores the world of Israeli high-security prisons and the Palestinian prisoners within their walls.
Masterfully built on interviews with these Palestinians and their Israeli wardens,
“Hothouse” is stunning in both senses of the word. Beautifully crafted, it is a humanizing, deeply disturbing look at a detention process that affects nearly every Palestinian in the Occupied Territories, a documentary that leaves one in stunned silence at the end.
The title of the documentary alludes to the fact that the Israeli prison system plays an enormous role in the life of the occupied territories. As one Israeli prison administrator points out, almost 10,000 Palestinians are held as “security prisoners,” the Israeli term for Palestinians in prison. It is, he says, a situation that touches every Palestinian family in one way or another. The prisons thus become both the focus of resistance and an extraordinary school where prisoners earn degrees and learn the democratic process. Such is the pathology of occupation: instructing as it imprisons.
“Hothouse” opens on the eve of the much-anticipated Palestinian elections. In one of the first scenes, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas recognizes the new council members currently behind bars and salutes the Palestinian prisoners who “represent the whole range of Palestinian society” as the leaders of the Palestinian people. Dotan then turns his camera on the inmates over the course of the year leading up to the elections.
At first the filmmaker, now living outside Israel, introduces his characters in stark, mesmerizing manner. One by one they pass before the camera: “I am from Ramallah/Jenin/a refugee camp. I killed a collaborator/ I drove a suicide bomber/ I planned an attack. I am in for 15 years/a life sentence/15 life sentences…” Many are in for multiple life sentences, following the Israeli practice of assigning one life sentence per victim. None appear to be failed suicide bombers themselves, and none, with one exception, look particularly happy to have caused people to be killed.
Dotan is careful to show that not all Palestinian prisoners have participated in violent events. Through the camera’s lens, we are party to the arrest of Hassan Yusef, a Hamas candidate, arrested during a Hamas rally under pretext of aiding Hamas military missions. Several other candidates are serving jail time for the crime, dating back to the days before the first intifada, of displaying Palestinian national symbols. Thirteen members of the newly elected legislature are in prison at the time of the vote, nine of whom are Hamas. It is, says one Palestinian, an attempt by the Israelis to disrupt the elections proceedings.
The Romanian-born Dotan develops an unusual rapport with his subjects over the course of the year, taking an unflinching look at what motivates both sides. The Israelis see the Palestinians as terrorists and a menace to the security of Israel, while the Palestinians see themselves as the freedom fighters of Palestine. More than a few of the “security prisoners” express regret for killing civilians. “Both nations are going nowhere,” says one. Few, if any, Israeli prison officials express regret over the growing population of Palestinian prisoners.
The basic premise of “Hothouse” is one that both the Israeli wardens and the Palestinian prisoners agree on: since the first intifada, the jails are now producing influential entities as each side gets to know the other. For the Israelis, who “are used to seeing Palestinians through the barrel of a gun,” it is an opportunity to study the Palestinian political system first hand, a study that leads one prison official to say that it is a chance “to understand their struggle” and how they see it. The Hamas and Fatah factions are kept in separate blocks, functioning on the inside much as they do on the outside.
For many of the Palestinians who come in as young men, often leaving behind young families, prison may or may not be the end of the line. They are young, radicalized by the occupation, eager for revenge. Many leave their youth behind as they prepare to serve multiple life sentences.
At first, the incarceration is difficult, one prisoner explains, but eventually one turns inward, and that is when doing time means getting down to business. What happens next illustrates the real perversity of the Israeli prison system. Over time, the young men whose lives are stunted by the constraints of occupation gain an education, maturity and political insight that they plan to use in service to the Palestinian nation if and when that time comes.
As Dotan follows the prisoners through their daily routines, we learn that almost every prisoner is studying. Some learn to read and write, while others work on advanced university degrees from correspondence courses, usually from Hebrew University. The Palestinians earn the grudging respect of their Israeli wardens as they struggle to master Hebrew, eventually writing their thesis in the language of the occupier.
In addition, the Palestinian prisoners use their newfound language skills to negotiate with their wardens over issues such as family visitations and daily searches. Internal elections are held and Dotan drops in on sophisticated debates about democracy, economic and foreign policies. As Abu Naji, an incarcerated candidate in the 2006 elections puts it, they are learning nation-building from the Israelis, producing an educated leadership ready and willing to take its place when the occupation ends.
Education, too, is a priority in the women’s prisons with many of the young women learning additional skills and leadership from each other. Dotan spends far less time in the women’s block than the men’s, but his time there is substantially more disturbing. Here one sees the psychosis of occupation played out in the person of Ahlam Tamimi, a former newscaster in prison for planning and aiding in the execution of a suicide bombing. A beautiful, poised mother of four, Tamimi coolly describes the operation and how she reported it on the news, and just as coolly justifies the event which killed several families as the defense of her own. Dotan very subtly underlines the horror of condemning another’s children to death by asking her if she has any regrets. Tamimi hesitates a fraction of a second before she says no, leaving one to reflect on what causes the moral disconnect which allows a parent to see killing another’s children as protecting one’s own.
Dotan ends his film on a note of hope. As the results for the elections draw near, the male Hamas and Fatah prisoners alike express a desire for a reasonable solution. None of them, they say, enjoy getting people killed, and yet they see it as a necessary evil committed in order to release Palestine from Israeli occupation. “We must reach a compromise,” says one. “We can’t live in a state where life looks like an intensive care unit.” In the end, Hamas wins the elections 57 percent to 32.5 percent and the prisoners of Beer Sheva and the other jails adjust their interaction to work with the new majority in the legislature.
In presenting these stories from Palestinian cellblocks, Dotan steers clear of such sensationalist subjects as the ferocity of some of the suicide bombings or the well-documented torture of Palestinian prisoners that goes on in places like Eshlon Prison. But what he either misses or consciously avoids, Dotan more than makes up for in his candid and provocative documentary. It is one to watch carefully, for, as Dotan suggests, like in South Africa and Ireland, such a prison system may well produce much of the next round of Palestinian leadership.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid