Sometimes, the greatest life experiences can happen in the littlest of towns.
That’s what Leila Sansour, filmmaker of the 2014 documentary ‘Open Bethlehem,’ discovered about the past five years of creating and campaigning in her hometown of Bethlehem—the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
While exploring the magnitude of the historic event over 2,000 years ago, Sansour’s film also intimately documents what’s happening in the little town of Bethlehem today.
In Open Bethlehem, Sansour returns to her hometown in 2005, only to discover the Israeli government had begun building a wall—the West Bank barrier—dividing ancient Israeli and Palestinian land amidst ongoing conflict, and directly surrounding her city; affecting its people and livelihood.
Sansour would stay in Bethlehem over the next five years, documenting and spearheading a campaign to bring peace to the Holy Land.
“As a filmmaker, I owe it to my city to document the dramatic changes of the building of the wall,” she said. “We continue as a project to try and Open Bethlehem, because we believe it’s a city whose heritage and history belongs to everybody.”
Sansour, a Catholic, believes that all Christians have a modern connection with the ancient city of Bethlehem.
“A city with a message of peace, whose name is sung by many around the world, is struggling today,” Sansour said. “If Christians mobilize to understand what’s going on, together we can make great change to the city, and open the dialogue between East and West.”
“The political climate is tense, and many feel the wall isolates us, but [Bethlehem] is still a welcoming place to pilgrims and strangers.”
The documentary explores the contrasts of old and modern Bethlehem; rising tensions between Christianity, Palestinians, and Jews; and Sansour’s efforts to promote awareness and tourism in a war-torn nation.
With over 600 hours of original footage and materials collected across Palestine, the US, and the United Kingdom, the project is also one the largest visual archives of Bethlehem.
Exclusive, in-language interviews with locals gives the human perspective at how the barrier affects, separates and even traps Bethlehem’s people—farmers, leaders, business owners, and families—within.
“The majority of our citizens are Catholics,” Sansour said. “Many of them lost their land, homes, and businesses during the wall’s construction.”
She also made the film as a tribute to her late father, a beloved Bethlehemite who founded Bethlehem University.
The film’s compelling call to action is through the Bethlehem passport, an initiative for supporters around the world to become honorary “citizens”—ambassadors in solidarity—of Bethlehem.
One of the first recipients of the Bethlehem passport was Pope Benedict XVI. Other prominent campaign ambassadors include Malala Yousafzai, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and President Jimmy Carter.
“It is a symbolic citizenship—we are saying to everybody that Bethlehem belongs to you, too,” said Sansour. “Please come journey with us, by walking in our shoes in one of the holiest places in the world.”
The Orange section of the Western Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepluchre of Jerusalem (holysepulchre.net), an international lay institution tasked by the Vatican with the mission of aiding the Church in the Holy Land, supports the film’s message.
With the office of Life, Justice and Peace at the Diocese of Orange, the Order hopes to gain momentum for US Catholics to support and pray for fellow Christians in the Holy Land.
“Bethlehem today knows no peace,” Sansour says as the film’s last words, with a shot of her overlooking the city. “But the message remains: ‘Behold, I bring you tidings of good joy…tear down the walls; make it clear the path of the Lord.”
The 90-minute documentary will be shown at a free screening on April 4, followed by a Q&A with Sansour, at the Freed Theater in Christ Cathedral – with a special opportunity for viewers to take action and become citizens of Bethlehem. RSVP for the screening at openbethlehem_christcathedral.eventbrite.com.
Learn more about the film and how to become an ambassador at openbethlehem.org.