‘Hotline’: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
An eye-opening look at a rare and controversial side of Israeli life

Director Silvina Landsmann ('Soldier/Citizen') documents an NGO assisting African migrants

Israeli documentaries have dealt with the Palestinian situation, the settlements issue and plenty of other controversial facets of its 66-year history. But few have tackled a relatively recent phenomenon: the arrival of thousands of Sub-Saharan African immigrants within Israel’s borders, where they’re subjected to special “Anti-Infiltration Laws” that leave them stranded in diplomatic limbo.

Turning her camera on The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a Tel Aviv-based NGO that helps asylum seekers navigate the country’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy as they apply for official status, director Silvina Landsmann (Soldier/Citizen) offers up an insightful glimpse into a seldom-seen side of local Israeli life. Revealing if not exactly gripping, Hotline should dial up fest and TV/VOD slots following a Berlinale Forum premiere.

Rather than providing any sort of context or background information, Landsmann plunges us right into the sparse downtown offices of the Hotline center, where a dozen employees – nearly all of them women – assist migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, Ghana and other African hotspots in various administrative matters, including obtaining asylum status, filing for temporary visas or transferring funds back home.

According to one expert, there are 60,000 such immigrants currently in Israel, most of them arriving via Egypt, where they risk being kidnapped and held for ransom by local Bedouins. Once they cross the Sinai and make it over the border, they can be arrested and sentenced to a three-year prison sentence (since reduced to one year). The job of the Hotline is to get them out of jail and, if possible, obtain visas so they can work temporarily (though illegally) and wire money to their families in Africa.

An already precarious situation is made worse by the fact that residents of South Tel Aviv, where many of the refugees wind up living, are far from thrilled to have them next door. Landsmann reveals the public animosity during a heated debate where a Hotline worker finds herself accosted by angry citizens, who claim the foreigners only “steal and rape and raise hell.” The fact that the arrivals are rarely Jewish does not help matters, and although Israel is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, its treatment of the migrants does not seem to hold up to basic human rights standards.

Concentrating on the heroic efforts of the Hotline staff, the film can feel a bit mundane as it covers lengthy congressional hearings and other bureaucratic dealings, while Landsmann’s rather flat video lensing does not exactly make it all look appealing.

The director however delivers a few eye-opening moments where we learn about each migrant’s individual journey, and the risks it entailed: One man begs that the body of his wife – who was killed during the Sinai crossing – be sent back to their hometown in the Ivory Coast. Another arrives barely able to walk after being tortured in the desert, and Landsmann benevolently shoots his testimony from behind a closed door. His face is blurry, but his story is frighteningly clear, and we finally understand that these people haven’t been raising hell – they’ve escaped from it.

Production companies: Comino Films, Ideale Audience
Director: Silvina Landsmann
Producers: Silvina Landsmann, Pierre-Olivier Bardet
Director of photography: Silvina Landsmann
Editors: Silvina Landsmann, Gil Schaiderovich
Composer: Joe Lewis
Sales agent: Go2Films

No rating, 99 minutes