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Review: The Devil's Drivers


- Daniel Carsenty and Mohhamed Abeguth's documentary on smugglers making a living in Occupied Palestinian Territories is a truly wild and emotional ride

Review: The Devil's Drivers

An accomplished documentary film about life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is bound to be complex. But when it spans a period of nine years, focusing on several characters who are doing illegal work in order to feed their families, in the hands of Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth it becomes a sprawling, multi-layered work that requires investment from the viewer. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, The Devil's Drivers makes that commitment easy: it is a wild ride, a veritable documentary action thriller that keeps you glued to your seat. 

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Hamouda and Ismail are cousins living in the village of Yatta, south of Hebron. They make their living by smuggling illegal workers through the narrow part of the border between the West Bank and Israel where the 500 km-long wall is not completed yet. It is difficult for a Palestinian to obtain a work permit in Israel, and for single men without children, it is literally impossible: they are considered potential terrorists. Jobs in the West Bank are scarce and poorly paid, and many people therefore risk their freedom every day as they go to work illegally in Israel, whose data says there are 60,000 undocumented workers in the country. 

When the film opens in 2012, Carsenty is in the car with Hamouda and a couple of workers. They are speeding on- and off-road in order to avoid the Israeli Army's jeeps. With the help of watchers positioned on hills to inform them on where the military vehicles are, they navigate between checkpoints and patrols, and each ride is a close call. On desert terrain, with the handheld camera in the car, the image jumps up and down and dust flies everywhere. 

After a high-octane opening, which ends with Hamouda and Ismail's arrest, the audience gets the chance to breathe and to watch a recap on the recent history of the Israeli occupation situation via simple and elegant, shape-shifting animation accompanied by narrative titles. We also meet one of the watchers, the old shepherd Ali, and Issa, another former smuggler who says he stopped driving when informers infiltrated the community. 

Hamouda and Ismail are released after a couple of months and put on probation. Hamouda immediately keeps driving — his third child was born while he was in prison. Issa's 20 year-old son joins the ranks of illegal workers, and Ismail goes into the construction business. After getting his first child, he wants to go legal. But this work clearly doesn't cut it, so he goes back to driving, and one single stint will put him in the gravest danger he was to encounter yet. 

The adrenaline-fuelled segments are counterbalanced with the protagonists' emotional, intimate stories, and both strands lean on the overarching picture of the repression. The Israeli government tightens the ring around the region with more patrols and checkpoints, and continues obstructing opportunities for normal life in all of the Occupied Territories. 

Some details in the film seem contradictory, but this is probably due to condensing a story spanning such a long period with ever-changing circumstances into 90 minutes: editor Laia Prat manages to hold it together even when it seems like it could burst through its seams. Composer Henning Buch's dramatic score also helps complete the picture, alternating between percussion-heavy and strings-led themes. 

The Devil’s Drivers was produced by Propellerfilm, CHUNK Filmproduktion and Mark It Zero. International sales are handled by Films Boutique

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