TIFF 2021 Review: Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth’s “The Devil’s Drivers” Charts a Difficult Road Ahead for Israel and Palestine

There aren’t many resources in Southern Palestine besides cars, with Hamouda, one of the main subjects of “The Devil’s Drivers,” lamenting that he hasn’t had running water in 12 years and the expense of electricity is prohibitive. He moved out of Ramallah because while the masses ensured a more comfortable life as far as infrastructure was concerned, he couldn’t afford to pay rent on his salary as a driver, and in Yatta, he found a home though it meant living more modestly than anyone should have to. Among countless other disadvantages, there was one other positive aspect to living in the village when the construction of a 500-mile fence around Palestinian Territories that began in 2002 had not been finished a decade later, leaving a naturally occurring hole that Hamouda and his cousin Ismail could exploit, sneaking fellow Palestinians into Israel to work via backroads and earning a living themselves.

As co-directors Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth make clear, no one is making a tidy profit on this dangerous business, with any income cycled back into keeping the operation running and keeping families fed in an arid region not conducive to farming and nearly all opportunities for work have dried up without a permit issued by the Israeli government, which is loathe to grant them. The snail’s pace of construction prevents the complete closure of civilization off to the people of Yatta, but nonetheless Israel uses their military might to keep their eyes on the region for smugglers such as Hamouda and Ismail and although the potential for violence is implied, “The Devil’s Drivers” is effective in illustrating how an occupation works without bullets, with no lives ever needed to be threatened to put fear into a community when livelihoods are destroyed first.

In the works for nearly a decade, the film crystallizes the gradual strangulation that Israel has applied over time to their neighbors, tracking Hamouda, Ismail and their lookout, Ali, as they first look for routes to transport workers that won’t attract attention and then seek a path forward in their lives after it becomes impossible to continue. Abugeth and Carsenty are implored frequently to turn off the camera so as not to earn the ire of the authorities when they join Hamouda and Ismail on the road, but what they do capture with patience is the frustration of being denied the right to do anything that could improve the quality of their life, with punishment doled out on the mere suspicion of smuggling at every turn in the form of road closures or jail time that essentially function as state-sanctioned incarceration for entire communities before any crimes, such as they are, are committed.

In time, you see not only how Hamouda and Ismail can’t build a future, but that their progeny are likely doomed as well, and while you wonder if the filmmakers could do a better job of presenting their subjects beyond their labor issues or whether safety concerns prevent being too detailed (potentially yet another form of cultural containment), the film impressively shows over generations, even those too young to consider entering the workforce, how conditions are only bound to get worse before they get better. Cogent and elegant bursts of animated history lessons regarding the deteriorating relationship between Israel and Palestine over the last 40 years conveys context around the harrowing drives Hamoud and Ismail make, and although it chronicles a dishearteningly static situation, “The Devil’s Drivers” can’t help but be moving.

“The Devil’s Drivers” will screen again virtually at the Toronto Film Fest on September 15th at 10 am and September 17th at 2 pm, available in Canada.