The Devil’s Drivers, 2021.
Written and directed by Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty.
Chased by the army, two Beduin smuggle Palestinian workers through the Negev desert. A portrait filmed over eight years about men living on the edge in one the most fragile regions of the world.
Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty’s upsetting, infuriating documentary is a powerful boots-on-the-ground account of the dire situation in Palestine, one defined by enormous disparity and ever-present existential dread.
Filmed over eight years between 2012 and 2020, The Devil’s Drivers follows a group of Palestinian men who, without sufficient job opportunities in the West Bank, have become smugglers, transporting similarly impoverished workers through a gap in Israel’s border wall to seek brighter employment opportunities there.
But this task comes with enormous risk for both drivers and passengers; Israeli soldiers are ever on the lookout for those trying to sneak into the country, and with increasing desperation in Palestine making smuggling more commonplace, the penalties for being caught have become excessive. Yet with job prospects as dire as they are in much of the West Bank, that dice-roll to provide for one’s family is still very much worth it to many.
We spend most of the film with smugglers Hamouda and his cousin Ismail, both residing in the opportunity-sparse town of Yatta. Even though Hamouda compares his work to that of a soldier who goes to war – “I may come back, I may not” – it’s bewilderingly still the best shot either has at providing for their families.
Abugeth and Carsenty’s doc lays bare the gulf of inequality between Palestine and Israel, where sneaking into the latter becomes less a choice than a necessity, as Israel cries foul that 60,000 Palestinians are working there illegally. Palestinians meanwhile claim they’re disproportionately denied work permissions in the country – especially in the case of unmarried men without kids, who are routinely suspected of being terrorists.
Indeed, beyond being caught smuggling, the spectre of prejudice looms large, with Israeli soldiers routinely viewing Palestinians as potential threats, even arresting Ismail for a 2016 shooting in a Tel-Aviv café which killed four people, due to him possibly smuggling the men responsible into the country totally inadvertently.
Add to this the seeds of distrust sewn throughout communities as Israeli soldiers recruit Palestinian villagers to spy on their own, and it’s clear that feeding one’s children is itself a treacherous covert mission. As a result, Hamouda and those like him have to employ canny chicanery to avoid the Israelis, by way of skillful driving and a network of lookouts. But in an environment where anyone could theoretically be a mole, there’s a crushing day-to-day uncertainty – “anything can happen at any time, with no warning,” he says.
The argument here is that there’s a systemic effort on Israel’s part to prevent Palestinian prosperity. The persistent attempts to undermine their most basic freedoms are shown to be aggressive and un-subtle; poisoning farmer’s harvests, stealing blankets from villagers’ homes, and even outright destroying alleged smugglers’ settlements out of petty “revenge.”
Worse still, the Israeli Army threatens to close the main roads out of Palestinian towns if smugglers keep using them, and as tensions rise these towns become ever-more encircled within police checkpoints. The feedback loop, of increasingly restricted opportunities making the smuggler’s life appealing, suggest a self-fulfilling prophecy possibly conceived by design.
There’s a striking sense of intimacy to this documentary, but also a very real sense of danger, where the mere act of filming the smuggling runs and Israeli traffic stops heightens the degree of risk manifold. Abugeth and Carsenty manage to capture the distressing anguish and tension of life in the West Bank, bringing a voice to a story many viewers may not know much – if anything – about. Further to that end, gorgeous animated interstitials explain the crucial context of decades of conflict in the region.
The filmmakers capture enough natural danger that one might feel the addition of a pulse-racing musical score during “suspense” sequences ventures a tad too far into tacky territory, well-composed by Henning Fuchs though it is. But for the most part the focus is trained on emphasising the moment-to-moment peril these men and their loved ones must live through.
Though there is some closing hope in the human spirit’s ability to endure, unsurprisingly nothing is solved by film’s end, and with mass violence breaking out as recently as May of this year, the forecast moving forward is an unavoidably bleak one. If this documentary can move the needle even a fraction and amplify the stories of those hobbled by the Israel-Palestine conflict, then it’ll have done its job.
The Devil’s Drivers powerfully captures the daily struggle of Palestinians to afford themselves the most basic dignities – to live and provide for their families free of fear.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.