Restrictive forces
Checkpoint stares down a quotidian nightmare.
By Robert Avila

CheckpointIT COULD BE one of many international borders around the world: huge guns strapped to the fronts of vaguely adolescent soldiers; long lines of young and old in extreme weather; humiliating interrogations and searches; and arbitrary treatment. And yet this is no border (and not, come to think of it, Iraq) but one of more than 200 roadblocks scattered throughout Palestinian land by the occupying Israeli army. One man in line shrugs at the passing camera. "Nobody knows about us here. Nobody in the world."

Jewish Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir's Checkpoint is the latest in a spate of documentaries that would like to change that. His artful vérité approach opens the camera lens (and veiled American eyes) on a representative handful of roadblocks dividing up the West Bank and Gaza. While some do monitor and limit the flow of Palestinians in and out of Israel (where many must work), most lie between one Palestinian town and another (even between Palestinian farmers and their fields). Leaving aside (as the film does) curfews, military incursions, administrative detentions, attacks and harassment from illegal settlers, the highly invasive new border wall, highway closures, and the like, the checkpoints represent all by themselves a severe restriction on the ordinary day-to-day movement of more than three million people.

This quotidian nightmare makes for undeniably riveting cinema in Shamir's hands. Shot on digital video between 2001 and 2003, in the midst of the second intifada, the film eschews voice-over narration and intertitles (and offers only a brief prefatory) and concentrates on quietly absorbing the mood and action (or inaction) of a given checkpoint, the sequences together forming a subtle, elliptical narrative. The lack of any larger context is a trade-off, but Shamir's access allows him to flow unhurriedly toward a scene's emotional and psychological center of gravity. His camera acts like an intimate, passive eye allowing events to unfold with gripping immediacy and in more or less fully formed vignettes, in tone frequently as absurd as they are tragic.

As a primary meeting point for Israeli Jews and Palestinians, the checkpoints speak volumes about the nature of the conflict. Here daily communication, ever imperfect, takes place through some combination of Arabic, Hebrew, and English. The real breakdown in understanding comes, however, from the inevitably clashing perspectives of occupier and occupied.

Up close, the Israeli soldiers and border police are invariably young; most seem not far out of childhood. The opening scene finds two lounging beside a small lake by the Nablus-Jericho checkpoint, where they admit to swimming, against regulations, when they can get away with it. But, truancy aside, "when the Palestinians come, we put on our show."

They put on a show for the camera too (which complicates the film's pretense of passive observation). Soldiers frankly and variously express their boredom and homesickness, a simple sense of duty or patriotism in their work, and, occasionally, unabashed racism. One soldier worries about coming off too hard on one man and pleads with the camera to explain that the fault lies with higher-ups. Another approaches the camera at a Ramallah checkpoint and jokes it must be for the Discovery Channel, since "Ramallah is a jungle.... We're human; they're animals."

By contrast, the Palestinians rarely address the camera, settling instead for furtive glances and passing remarks in its direction. Preoccupied with negotiating another checkpoint, they may be wary of upsetting their chances of getting through without added grief. The arbitrary authority wielded by the guards takes a dreadful toll, even though Palestinians have clearly learned that patience and persistence can often reverse a soldier's initial refusal. Still, families are regularly separated, and workers kept from their jobs, and even successful passage can require an exhausting effort.

It's an old man who uncharacteristically addresses the camera. "Film this," he says as he settles down with a group of pedestrians halted on their way home by a temporary road closure. "See what they do to us." A busload of children standing at a checkpoint south of Jenin are another exception, crowding around the camera with glee, while their driver tussles with the guards who want to turn the bus back for lacking the proper permit. When, later on, we return to the same roadblock, the scene is almost identical. The soldiers unload the school bus and search it, and the kids display no less interest in the camera. This time, however, a Christian pastor stands with them. He explains to the guards in accented English that he has come to see how the children fare at the checkpoint. They reply that the bus can go on to Jenin, but he cannot pass, since Jenin is now closed. "Since when?" the pastor asks. "Today."

And so it goes. Strangely enough, after the bus leaves, one of the guards asks the pastor, who has begun hoofing it back up the road, if he will pose for a picture with him. (Is this a goof? An act of contrition? No hard feelings?) The pastor agrees on the condition that the soldier remove his gun ("With a gun, there is no understanding between the people") and helmet. The picture is snapped, and the encounter ends with the pastor wishing the young man a better career. "It's my work," the soldier says matter-of-factly. "It's a dirty work," the pastor replies.

Why, after all, are the checkpoints there? The soldiers blame the Palestinians who have "caused all this trouble." But even without editorializing or providing much in the way of historical context, the film suggests such collective punishment cannot be justified morally or strategically on the basis of national security.

In the final sequence, night falls heavily on a checkpoint as a truck driver complains of already waiting 5 hours in the cold for permission to be on his way. Another man claims he's been waiting 10. We hear a soldier offering weak assurance that the proper authorities are at work on the problem, but it's hard to tell if he's addressing anyone in particular – the scene has gone pitch-black. 'Checkpoint' opens Fri/10, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. $4-$8. (415) 863-1087.