‘No Other Land’ Review: Vital and Wrenching Doc About Israel’s Barbaric Efforts to Expel a Palestinian Community from Its Own Land

Liem Soeng

‘No Other Land’ Review: Vital and Wrenching Doc About Israel’s Barbaric Efforts to Expel a Palestinian Community from Its Own Land
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Basel Adra’s first memory is of Israeli soldiers raiding his house and arresting his father, a Palestinian activist who’s been fighting to preserve the small mountain community of Masafer Yatta since long before his son was born. Adra was only five years old at the time, but he can still remember the fear of that violation as if it only happened yesterday. 

In part, that’s because it did; raised in an occupied territory under Apartheid conditions, Adra has never known a life that wasn’t under threat of forced removal. But the freshness of his memory can also be attributed to the fact that Adra has never known a life that wasn’t being documented for his own protection. The most dehumanizing episodes of his existence have all been captured on camera by his family and their fellow villagers, the footage preserved and shared in the hopes that the world might witness their suffering and prevail upon Israel to let Palestinians live in peace (“I started filming when we started to end,” Adra intones, perhaps repeating the same words his father said the first time he picked up his own camera).

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Against all odds, that hope continues to persevere — not only among the survivors of Masafer Yatta, but also in the raw and enraging documentary that Adra has co-directed about Israel’s decades-long attempt to erase them from the earth as completely as it erased them from its maps.

The first major film about the occupation of Palestine since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October of last year, “No Other Land” naturally assumes a tragic new urgency in light of the fact that at least 29,000 Palestinians — more than 12,000 of them children — have been murdered in their own country since Adra and his collaborators began editing their documentary in preparation of its Berlinale debut, but this harrowing and unforgettable portrait of endurance is all the more powerful for its focus on the decades of colonial degradation that paved the way for Israel’s latest and most nakedly genocidal effort to oppress its neighbors. 

The film begins in the summer of 2019, though its snapshots of village life feel like they could have been recorded at any point in the 40 years since the Israeli government declared Masafer Yatta a “closed military training zone” (a transparent attempt to displace the families who’ve been living there for centuries in order to create Israeli settlements on their land). The order came down in 1980, but the forced expulsion didn’t formally begin until an Israeli court resolved the petition against it in 2022.

Needless to say, the Israeli military didn’t feel compelled to wait for such a foregone conclusion; since Adra’s birth in 1996, Masafer Yatta has been demolished and rebuilt more times than he can count. By day, the Israelis bulldoze the community’s houses, schools, and playgrounds, forcing the Palestinians into caves that have become regular second homes, complete with flat-screen TVs mounted on damp rock walls. They search for tools, destroy electric generators, and shoot a man named Harun Abu Aram in the neck when he dares to intervene. By night, the people of Masafer Yatta piece their properties back together in a bid for integrity that doubles as a show of defiance. 

As the courts near the final verdict and the expulsion was due to be “legalized” by a country that doesn’t allow Palestinians to provide their own defense, the Israeli military feels emboldened to accelerate the displacement process — and to make it permanent. Many of the scenes in “No Other Land” begin the same way: With the Israeli forces pulling into town and pasting demolition orders on everything in sight as they intimidate and/or assault anyone who dares to protest the invasion. Old women are yelled at, young children are physically shoved aside (no wonder they beg to go to school even when their parents are too fraught and sleepless to remember what day of the week it is), and sometimes the adults are shot with assault rifles. How much training does a military need to murder unarmed civilians at point-blank range? 

It’s no surprise that we come to know several of Adra’s friends and family members over the course of the film, many of whom can be recognized at a glance during protest scenes and less harried glimpses into village life, but the Israelis are there so often that we come to know some of them as well. Namely: A monumental prick named Ilan, who’s been placed in charge of the demolition process, and plunders around Masafer Yatta like a bull in a china shop, or an incensed farmer who can’t understand why his weeds keep regrowing overnight. 

The other Israeli who achieves lead character status does so on far more agreeable terms. His name is Yuval Abraham, he’s a young journalist from the other side of the border, and he so closely resembles Adra in both looks and spirit that it’s impossible not to think of them as a pair of fraternal twins — their fates separated by Apartheid. One of the other three co-directors credited on this project’s team of Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers (Hamdan Balla and Rachel Szor round out the group), Abraham is determined to make the most of his freedom by platforming the destruction of Masafer Yatta. “You’re a ‘human rights’ Israeli?,” one of the Israeli soldiers scoffs at him. “Something like that,” Abraham replies. 

Adra welcomes his support (even as some of the other villagers prove skeptical), but rolls his eyes at the outsider’s enthusiasm and frustration; Adra has been living under these conditions his entire life, only to watch a well-intentioned guy from Israeli swan in under the false assumption that a few blog posts might patch this whole thing up. To his credit, Abraham resolves to stay in this fight for the long haul, but his preoccupation with web traffic and view counts — despite being a real and relevant concern in the effort to spread Masafer Yatta’s story, and ultimately convince the United States to pressure Israel into leaving the land alone — can’t help but underscore how difficult it is for an outsider to appreciate the all-encompassing cruelty that’s being exacted upon the people of Palestine. 

Abraham can hop into his car and drive across the border for a shower whenever he feels like he’s covered in too much blood and dirt; Adra isn’t allowed to have a license, and Ilan has driven a bulldozer through most of the local bathrooms that have running water. “No Other Land” doesn’t put too fine a point on that disconnect, as this briskly edited film refuses to let the irreconcilable distance between friends distract from the constant drumbeat of harassment and violence that the Israeli military visits upon the people of Masafer Yatta. 

This is a painfully human story, but it only entertains any sort of interpersonal drama so far as it might serve Adra and Abraham’s efforts to share that story with the world. It’s touching to hear Adra confess that he’s afraid of becoming his father (not because he doesn’t idolize his dad, but because he worries he doesn’t have the energy required to continue his fight), and maddening beyond measure to watch Harun Abu Aram’s mother care for her mortally injured son in a cave for two years after he gets shot; these individual narratives were always going to be necessary for this film to find an audience in the face of a world that was numb to its calamity before October 7, and now struggles to comprehend its scale.

People need to see the little kids who plead with their parents to let them play iPhone games for a few more minutes before bedtime. People need to wonder and worry about what has happened to these families since the bombs started falling. People need to remember the look on the face of an Israeli soldier when one of the Masafer Yatta women demands to know “Aren’t you ashamed?” They are not ashamed. “Aren’t you afraid of God?” They are not afraid of God. 

These images stick to the ribs as much as the more violent ones that frame them on either side (the brief footage that Adra recorded on or immediately after October 7 is horrifying), but so too does the clip of Tony Blair walking through town when Adra was a child. A hero to none, the former British PM was in Masafer Yatta for a grand total of seven minutes, and surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards the entire time he was there, but his aloof presence — secured by decades of defiant protest — brought more attention to the local struggle than Adra’s family had ever been able to do on their own, and it even convinced Israel to pause their demolition until the world got distracted by something else.

Witnessing is the most effective defense people have against occupation, and the Israeli military, like all thieves, wilts in the face of being watched. The footage is out there, and it’s rarely been assembled into a more concise, powerful, and damning array than it is here. Now it only has to be seen. 

Grade: A

“No Other Land” premiered at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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