As may have been expected, the BBC Two commissioned programme ‘Alternativity’ that was aired on December 17th did not – as claimed by the station’s controller Patrick Holland – present “a challenging and provocative exploration” of the nativity story at all. Rather, most of that hour-long programme was devoted to context-lite, one-sided political messaging promoted primarily by both its narrator (actress Olivia Colman) and its main character Danny Boyle.
The real ‘star’ of this exercise in the manipulation of Christmas was however the anti-terrorist fence – and although well over 90% of that structure is built of wire mesh, viewers were never informed of that fact and only saw images of the sections constructed from concrete.
The film opens with a description of its main location – Bethlehem – which has of course been under complete Palestinian Authority control for the last 22 years: a fact that was erased from the entire programme. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]
Colman: “This is Bethlehem: world capital of the international Jesus Christ birthday business. This year Bethlehem became home to a unique hotel. Billed as having the worst view in the world, Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel sits under the gaze of an Israeli watchtower in the occupied Palestinian territories. The place where Christmas was invented now feels like a city under siege and in need of some serious festive cheer. This is the story of what happened when Banksy asked a world-famous movie director to come all the way to the little town of Bethlehem to put on a nativity play like no other in what was once the most Christmassy place on earth.”
A siege is defined as “a military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender”. Bethlehem of course does not fit that definition. As we see, the BBC commissioned programme uses the term “occupied Palestinian territories” to describe an area that has been under complete PA control for over two decades.
Later on (04:56) that term is also used to describe areas that – under the terms of the Oslo Accords – the status of which is to be determined through negotiation and are therefore not at this time “Palestinian”.
Colman: “There are no international airports in the West Bank. Tourists fly to Tel Aviv in Israel. From there, Bethlehem is only an hour away by car. But the journey means crossing through a 400 mile long heavily fortified separation barrier into the occupied Palestinian territories. Inside this enclosed region movement is restricted. And most Palestinians are not allowed to leave without permits. It’s a small step for Danny but a huge leap into a very different reality.”
The messaging is reinforced by Boyle’s own comments.
Boyle: “And there’s the wall. Wow! Yeah. Look at that.” […] “Wow! Look at the wall. The wall’s extraordinary, isn’t it? You’ve no idea how…they’re like kind of…it’s like nails driven into the ground. It’s like…you just imagine something different really. It’s so crude and brutal.”
From 11:46 viewers hear the narrator introduce another scene.
Colman: “Fadi – a local guide – is taking Danny to experience Bethlehem’s version of the rush hour at 5 a.m. when thousands of labourers queue to get to work on the other side in Israel.”
She subsequently (12:20) promotes several highly partisan and questionable claims:
Colman: “The separation barrier and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land have sliced through communities, separating neighbours. Thousands have been imprisoned for refusing to leave their land and although the exact boundaries are hotly disputed, many have been evicted and are now on black-lists banning them from entering Israel, meaning they are unable to travel for work. One of these is Amin. Imprisoned as a teenager, he now makes his living selling refreshments to the workers.”
Viewers then hear an unverifiable account from a person identified as Amin Jebrein but are not told that gates in the anti-terrorist fence allow farmers access to their crops, that land owners receive compensation for any land used for the fence’s construction or that they have the legal right of appeal.
Jebrein: “They came to my land and they put a fence before my land and they take all my land inside the wall. They take me to the prison and I stay for one year because I am terrorist because I fight them, you know. And I lost my land, lost my life, lost my study. But I hope next year when you come that this will have gone>”
Boyle: “No wall”.
Boyle goes on:
Boyle: “You can see the guys going to work. You know, it’s almost like their heads were down so they didn’t see the indignity they were having to go through to pass through this thing.”
Viewers then see Boyle compare the anti-terrorist fence to the Berlin Wall, claiming that it is “double the height” and “so tall compared to that” but with no mention made of the fact that the height of the concrete sections is specifically intended to thwart sniper attacks.
Only nearly a quarter of a way into this programme (at 14:24) and long after the scene has already been amply set, do viewers hear the first – and last – brief mention of why the anti-terrorist fence had to be built.
Boyle: “Obviously reading history and the background, obviously the wall was a response to suicide bombings and shocking acts of terror, really, where innocent people were blown up and a nation clearly reacts in an incredibly aggressive and dominant way to a force that they feel threatens them. So I can understand – although I personally don’t…it’s not a solution that I think works ultimately – nor as I think it is a solution that is fair for any nation to impose upon itself or a community within itself. I find that very, very, very difficult.”
Referring to the part of the nativity story in which Joseph has to go to Bethlehem for a census, Boyle then compares that journey to those of the Palestinian workers just featured, making no mention of Joseph’s religion and ethnicity or the fact that Bethlehem was a Jewish town at the time.
At 17:24 viewers hear an inaccurate – and contradictory – statement:
Colman: “The Church of the Nativity [in Bethlehem] might be cut off from the world by walls and watchtowers but it still gets over a million tourists a year.”
Later on (20:45) another entirely unsupported and evidence free claim is made:
Colman: “The olive tree is hugely important to Palestinian culture but thousands of families have seen their olive groves enclosed by the wall and uprooted.”
The programme’s focus then turns to another location and that will be discussed in part two of this post.