The road to Bethlehem - Aleem MaqboolThe road to Bethlehem - Aleem Maqbool

The first simulation I would like to introduce is The road to Bethlehem, a project by BBC Middle East correspondent Aleem Maqbool.

Last Christmas, Maqbool embarked upon a 10-day journey on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem, intending to replicate the same route of the “nativity” attributed to Mary and Joseph about 2.000 years ago, as according to Luke the Evangelist. As tradition would have it, he was accompanied by a donkey which carried the equipment and the provisions during the 150 km. trek. Besides the length, this journey was a challenge on many levels due to the new obstacles along the way. It routes through areas of continued conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, where army incursions, militancy, and checkpoints manned by soldiers are commonplace.

At the beginning, the diary recording the journey contains brief descriptions. It provides some information about the cities and historical monuments, almost like a travel guide. But as the journey progresses and he meets new people, Maqbool is constantly caught in the crossfire of the past and the present, related through the commentaries of local people: someone is explaining the difference of identity between Arab Israelis and Palestinians in a kebab shop, someone else is telling the story of water in Palestine, the plant life in Al Fara’a or the history of the Jewish settlement of Shilo, another one is sharing the absurdity of bureaucracy in the case of medical emergencies. These narratives are backed up by the everyday life experience of the author. Indeed, he knows something about the absurdity of bureaucracy, since he had to change his donkey 5 times in 10 days because of soldiers at checkpoints telling him the donkey was not having the right papers, and therefore was not allowed to cross the border. Even if the journey was intended as a romantic, almost spiritual one within a complex land, he can’t make an abstraction of the situation when an Israeli military raid happens in a Palestinian village near the border and he decides to make a detour.

In the 1920s there was Kino-Pravda, a newsreel series intended to capture fragments of actuality - the “hidden” truth - in the Soviet Union by Dziga Vertov. Eventually, it evolved to become cinema-vérité 30 years later in France, a style combining naturalistic techniques with cinematic expertise where the camera is no more neutral and is used to provoke subjects. Then, docudrama appeared as a new branch in the middle of the 1960s by introducing the dramatization of actual historical events and projecting alternative propositions based on real facts. These previous propositions can be seen as an heritage in some of the contemporary documentary filmmakers’ works, such as Avi Mograbi who creates a provocation through his presence and his camera, mainly investigating the reality of roadblocks and walls. But it has also certain limits: indeed, the work of Mograbi received critics, especially from the Israeli intellectuals who consider him as a moralist who takes the position of a victim, “as people whose willingness to acknowledge their responsibility makes them morally superior” and uses “the suffering of Palestinians as a backdrop for the demonstration of the consciousness and suffering of those documentarists” in regards to the complex political situation. If this is where Mograbi’s works fail, this is also where Maqbool’s work becomes relevant.

The beauty of it comes from the original idea - the simulation of a holy journey two millennia later by reenacting one of the most well-known scripts of our time. Maqbool’s first concern is neither to complain nor even to provoke any particular situation, but to accomplish his journey in time. This aim gives him the possibility to take some distance. Therefore, relating his own experience becomes a priority. Of course, this induces a part of subjectivity in the narration, something we are not used to read in daily reports published by global news sites. I think that is an interesting attitude which blurs the borders between amateur documents and professional documentaries, leaving the artifacts of journalistic objectivity on the sidelines. The reporter becomes an author who reveals the stories told by the people he met on his way, either citizens or soldiers. In addition, the BBC News network gives him the opportunity to express these impressions to a large public. It also provides a limited participative platform: the readers have the possibility to submit their questions and Maqbool answers some of the “selected” ones during a day. Maqbool hacks - maybe unconsciously - the framework of a large-scale global news network by proposing a paradoxical, subjective yet transparent journalistic point of view which is particularly interesting. Maqbool’s project is important because I believe it is a part of the natural evolution of the documentary style, something one might define as an experience in journal-vérité if such a thing exists.

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