In Hot House, Romanian-Israeli documentarian Shimon Dotan takes a hard-nosed look at the social and political culture of Palestinians doing time in a high-security Israeli prison. It’s an intense experience, not only for its content, but its breathless approach as Dotan explores as many angles to the Israeli-Palestinian issue as he can pack into each moment. Particularly striking is the astonishing level of access Dotan seems to have had. He interviews a wide canvas of prisoners (many of whom are serving multiple life terms) who speak openly of the reason for their incarceration (most commonly, their collaboration in suicide bombings), the inner workings of prison life, and the general state of the Palestinian struggle. As a polemical backdrop, Dotan uses the 2006 Palestinian elections—a contest that saw the radical policies of Hamas gaining ground over the more moderate Fatah party.
Dotan covers both the male and female blocks of the prison, asking pointed questions, trying to get at the heart of the Palestinian revolutionary: The answers are surprising, and, even heart-wrenching as, at one point, a female inmate smiles impassively after Dotan informs her how many Israeli children died as a result of her actions. That smile speaks volumes about the practiced emotional detachment that resistors must adopt if they are to carry on. It can also be seen as a vengeful smile, a response to the many children on their side killed by Israeli and American bombs. Another inmate, a male, swears that, once he has children, he’ll surely strap them with bombs and send them to a martyr’s death, and how, once he’s released, he can’t wait to take vengeance for his imprisonment, i.e. kill a few Israelis, before submitting his own life to a suicide attack.
But this is not a showcase for loathing and rage; many of the inmates, we learn, are either well-educated in political science, communications, and the history of the Middle East, or are in the process of obtaining degrees in these areas. Furthermore, life inside the prison is extraordinarily organized, divided into groups with their own internally elected leaders who, in turn, become the inmates’ spokespersons vis-à-vis the prison’s management. Life inside the prison walls, in effect, becomes a rough microcosm of that on the outside: rife with politics, impassioned prayer, and an uneasy dynamic between the “oppressor” and the “oppressed.” It may seem downright civilized compared to our impression of American lock-ups, until we consider that these prisons, with their continual anti-Israel propaganda, are only one step removed from Islamist madrasas.
All the Israelis can do is keep the leaders of the Palestinian movement locked up, enforce security as rigorously as possible, and plug any means of communication between the inmates and their allied factions in Palestine and even abroad. Needless to say, leaks are rampant, and, worse, their policies are yielding exactly the opposite results: Fomenting resentment and revolutionary zeal among the imprisoned, and giving greater street cred to these “freedom fighters.” Brilliantly shot, edited, and executed, Dotan’s documentary accomplishes a portrait of two sides locked in a cycle of vicious, violent futility, in which the children and wives of the imprisoned suffer the most (a visitation scene is particularly wrenching to watch). Hot House, if anything, may be taking on more than it can process—throwing too many cinders into its fire—but what lingers, aptly so, is the acrid tang of anxiety, and a fascinating document of what people will sacrifice for the sake of land and religion.