There is rarely a year goes by where the ongoing Israeli / Palestinian conflict doesn’t make international news headlines with accusations of subterfuge, sabotage and substantial terror threats. But, in amongst all of these headlines are real people. Real people who have families and homes. Real people who dream of a better life or, at least, a life where their very existence isn’t seen as a threat.
The Devil’s Drivers co-directors Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth offer up a style of documentary film-making that blends high-speed car chases, animated graphics and real, devastating life. Shot over a period of eight years, they capture the lives and trials of two Bedouin cousins, Hamouda and Ismail, who work intermittently as ‘people smugglers’. They take Palestinians from the occupied territories on the treacherous border crossing to Israel where they work illegally, but for far better wages than they could ever hope to earn in their home towns. It feels very rare, very intimate to get such a glimpse of a conflict that is often only seen from the skies or the newsroom.
The documentary centres around the towns of Yatta and Jenba, which exist within the occupied territories and are subject to being closed off entirely, thanks to the construction of a border wall. For miles around, there is nothing but desert and dirt road. This open landscape means there is no place to hide, should the Israeli army appear. These towns have become increasingly smaller and cut off – including access to running water, which Hamouda has not had in his home for twelve years – thanks to dictates forbidding new construction work.
These wide, sprawling landscapes are contrasted with tight, intimate close-ups of the Bedouin cousins and their friends. Etched across each face is decades of frustration, anger, fear, uncertainty, despair and resilience. However, it is pure joy that radiates from Hamouda’s eyes and face when he spends time playing with his four young children. It is in the capturing of this simple family time that really brings humanity to the situation.
But where Carsenty and Abugeth really get your heart racing is in the audacious car chases across the border. Hamoudi picks up around four passengers per trip in his ailing car. They start off with quiet prayer, during which Hamoudi begins the task of setting up various calls and texts as part of his system of ‘lookouts’. The camera – resting on the passenger seat – positively bounces up and down as the rough terrain makes its presence known against the car. It’s extremely disorientating. Hamoudi receives several panicked phone calls, voices are raised, and a pulsating soundtrack starts to creep in. The tension is unbearable; his passengers fall silent. You may well find yourself holding your breath. The whole situation feels like a scene from a blockbuster but – as subsequent arrests and retaliations prove – this is very much real life.
Just across that border is a sea of glittering glass and steel. High rise buildings, white sand beaches and blistering night lights. Even electricity is seen as something of a marvel to the smugglers. Israel looks every inch the modern nation in contrast to the dilapidated building just a few kilometres down the road.
And it’s this distance that, at times, feels worlds apart and, at others, feels all too close. Talks of intimidations, poisoning, reprisals come to a head as sheep farmer Ali watches his entire village be bulldozed by the Israeli army. His whole way of life is destroyed in mere hours. His children – who dream of university and a life without worry – now sleep outdoors. Issa, a taxi driver and former smuggler, worries about his son who travels across the border for work. So many men just do not come home. “We don’t live in a free country,” he says, eyes bowed down.
Throughout the film, there are animated graphics that chart the situation in the West Bank, dating back to the ‘First Intifada’ to the present day. These are used sparingly and well done, providing a little more context to the situation that Hamouda, Ismail, Ali and Issa find themselves in. The men are aware that their activities put a target on their back but it’s a target that they feel has always been and will always be there – simply because they are not wanted by their neighbours.
The Devil’s Drivers is a strikingly brave and daring piece of documentary film-making, which aims to enlighten as much as it does to expose. It doesn’t openly castigate, as what you see and witness is enough to draw your own conclusions from. Perhaps the overall ethos of the film can be summed up rather eruditely by Ismail, who sighs, “You live but you don’t really live at the same time.”