My favorite documentarian is Frederick Wiseman, whose films are masterpieces of observation. Wiseman’s signature, if you will, is his lack of narration. As a novice documentarian, I can attest to how hard it is to make a good film entirely by showing, and not telling.
And while Yoav Shamir is no Frederick Wiseman (Checkpoint lacks the musical rhythm of Wiseman’s filmed compositions), he manages to tell an interesting story without imposing his voice on to the film.
Shot on video, the movie is made of footage from the various checkpoints around Israel where Palestinians are stopped and checked before being allowed entry. Bethlehem, Jenin, Hebron, names Americans recognize from the headlines, are shown here in their bleak, desert reality. We never see any of the cities themselves, only tanks or tin-and-concrete shacks to house the guards on the lonely roads far outside the towns.
Though most encounters are mundane, each one is unique. Many families try to get in to Israel to see a doctor. Depending on the mood of the guards, sometimes the whole family is allowed through, an sometimes only the patient is allowed through. A man in a white truck — he can’t say exactly whose truck it is or where he got it — is turned away.
Some Palestinians get genuinely annoyed, but most are cowed and too timid to stand up to the armed soldiers. A big mob just walks through and the soldiers allow them to pass, unwilling to instigate a massacre.. Another episode shows Palestinians starting a snowball fight with the Israeli guards, screaming “Intifada!” — all, apparently, in fun.
Q, but no A
Videotaped between 2001 and 2003, Checkpoint never includes anything as dramatic as a bomb or an attack, and one wonders whether the footage is representative of daily life at these checkpoints, or whether Shamir decided not to show those moments. One also wonders if Shamir wasn’t hoping for a little action for his film, and perhaps couldn’t find it over the course of two years.
In either case, what we see on screen raises the question of whether the checkpoints are effective deterrents to terrorist attacks, or whether they are a systematic attempt to denigrate and humiliate the predominantly poor Palestinians, for whom the checkpoints are a part of everyday life. If two years of footage doesn’t include a single attacker, then maybe the checkpoints are expensive, useless, and counterproductive. Then again, if the film deliberately omits such footage, then its own integrity is called into question.
A narrator might be able to answer some of these questions and concerns. Thankfully, Shamir opted not for that route, because answering these questions would necessitate adding more shape and direction to the film. It would leave other questions unasked. It would direct your perception instead of letting it soak in the footage. It would make the film narrower, shallower, and less interesting.
The questions that a narrator could not answer are “What would I do in their place? What if my job was to decide who gets through and who doesn’t?” I doubt I could do any better than the next guy; I wouldn’t be comfortable making such a potentially important decision.
Then again, what if I were a Palestinian? What if worked on the other side of one of these checkpoints. What if my morning commute took 4 hours because of the same damn checkpoint? Would the checkpoint be self-defeating, making me ultimately more resentful of the Israelis and sympathetic to the violent resisters?