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'Wall' is timely but can't bridge political divide

It isn't possible to overstate the barriers present in every frame of Simone Bitton's latest documentary, ''Wall."

In addition to the film's visual focus -- a mass of concrete and metal that separates Israel from the West Bank -- its title (''Mur" in French) also plainly telegraphs the intention of this Moroccan-born, Jewish Arab filmmaker to explore emotional, cultural, and political divides. Unintentionally, her hands-off, hang-around approach to moviemaking also throws up some major hurdles for viewers, but we'll get to those in a minute. First, a bit of history:

When the Israeli government broke ground in 2002 for the wall (they prefer the term ''fence"), it was promoted as a necessary security measure. It's the largest engineering project in Israel's history, loosely spanning about 400 miles of a volatile and controversial border known as the Green Line. The costly design offers multiple layers of protection that include barbed wire, sensors, watchtowers, and ditches, just in case 25-foot concrete panels aren't enough of a deterrent.

Coming and going through the wall's checkpoints is a tiresome and undignified process that makes US airport security look like a cocktail reception. Whether or not it's warranted, the wall depicted in Bitton's movie seems mostly to be impeding shoppers, workers, and families who crawl over it and reach through it wherever they can, tagging every available surface with graffiti that makes a mockery of its serious mission.

There can be no argument about the worthiness of this wall as a documentary subject. When a state is willing to imprison itself and scar the very land it holds sacred, it's only natural for filmmakers to ask why. Bitton poses the important questions, but too often she lets powerful responses get lost amid footage that lingers forever on some mundane location shot while interviews are happening mostly off camera.

One of the few important chats conducted entirely onscreen is Bitton's artful interrogation of Amos Yaron, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. It's priceless, especially the part when he admits his government's construction orders have harmed the environment, then reasons, ''It's all the Palestinians' fault."

Bitton seems to want to make a point of being a casual, unobtrusive observer who's only there to record whatever happens by. That feels disingenuous, although it's not a fatal flaw so long as Yaron or some other compelling voice wanders into the picture periodically. When such forces are too-often absent for long stretches, and the filmmaker chooses not to impose a strong voice or direction of her own, all the topic worthiness in the world might not keep you awake.

Janice Page can be reached at

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