HotHouse (Shimon Dotan). New York: First Run/Icarus Films, 2006.
Virtually every Palestinian knows someone who has spent time in an Israeli jail. In mid-2007, there were roughly 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners—men, women and children—held by Israel on both sides of the Green Line. Shimon Dotan’s 89-minute documentary HotHouse offers a previously unseen glimpse of their daily lives.
The film captures important aspects of the Palestinian prisoner experience, establishing, for example, that cells are organized along factional lines and that groups of prisoners have elected representatives who negotiate with administrators to secure rights and privileges. In one particularly poignant scene, Dotan shows the tortuous logistics of the bimonthly, 45-minute family visits, including how Israeli guards pass prisoners’ young children through small windows so that the prisoners may hold them for ten minutes before the visit is over. While some other scenes feel contrived, here Dotan succeeds in depicting a heart-wrenching reality without editorializing.
The point of Dotan’s documentary is not to record prison life, however, but to argue that the prisoners are a powerful force in Palestinian politics. Through the act of incarcerating these people, Israel is contributing to the continuous regeneration of the Palestinian political leadership, including the leadership of militant groups. HotHouse shows that Palestinian prisoners organize themselves in such a way as to transform Israel’s punishment of their political activity into an opportunity for political and other education. For many, prison is where their formal political education, along with their involvement in organized political activity, begins. Others enter as rank-and-file activists and leave as leaders.
Dotan is not the first to contend that Israeli prisons function as a sort of Palestinian activist “university,” and his film, moreover, does not really explain why that is the case. While he never acknowledges as much on screen, it will be clear to viewers that Dotan was only able to film inside Israel’s prisons with the cooperation of Israeli authorities. Less clear to the uninitiated, however, is that Israel rarely provides such access and that the standards at the featured facilities are at odds with the majority of reports on conditions for Palestinian prisoners issued by local and international human rights organizations. In HotHouse, Palestinians are held in clean, well-organized prisons by compassionate guards and a friendly warden. The cells resemble dormitory rooms and, other than the objective fact of imprisonment, prisoners face no special difficulty. One female prisoner in the film goes so far to say that she is happy to be in jail and Dotan makes no attempt to unpack her statement.
One walks away from HotHouse with the feeling that the prison experience is transformative because prisoners have so much free time on their hands to study and paint. Such abusive conditions of detention in Israeli facilities as being held in tents in the desert, tortured during interrogation, mistreated by prison staff or denied medical treatment—all thoroughly documented by human rights organizations—are absent from the film. Here Dotan not only sanitizes the experiences of Palestinian prisoners, he misses one of the key reasons they are afforded such respect and political weight. Having to survive such conditions explains in large measure why, for so many Palestinians, Israel’s prisons are an education.
Another striking silence is Dotan’s complete failure to explore how Palestinians live outside of prison and what might have led them to be active members of the Palestinian resistance in the first place. While the film places emphasis on the fact that the prisoners are committed to their “cause,” it does not elucidate what the cause actually is, other than a vague desire to “liberate our land.” The displacement of two thirds of Palestinian society and the destruction of some 400 Palestinian villages from 1947-1949 during the creation of the state of Israel is never mentioned in the film. Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is mentioned only in passing. Prisoner after prisoner identifies his role in violent resistance to Israel, but no time is dedicated to Israeli violence toward Palestinians living under occupation or suffering from the associated regime of systematic human rights abuses.
A related problem is Dotan’s exclusive focus on one segment of the Palestinian prisoner population—those who have received long sentences after being convicted of involvement in violence directed at Israeli civilians. Viewers never learn that the Palestinian prisoner population is more diverse than this, or that Israel has detained thousands of Palestinians without ever charging or trying them.
HotHouse proffers a simple and skewed narrative: Palestinians engage in violent acts because they believe in their “cause.” Israel imprisons these “security threats,” who use the ample time they have on their hands to educate themselves formally and emerge from the confines of prison as leaders of the Palestinian resistance. Had he turned his lens outside those same confines, Dotan would not only have offered his viewers a more honest depiction of Palestinian prisoners, he would also have better served his own argument that they are a formidable political force. The film Dotan actually made, with its misleading emphasis on Palestinians convicted of attacks upon Israeli civilians, conveys not so much a message as a warning.