The Devil’s Drivers
(Qatar/France/Lebanon/Germany, 90 min.)
Dir. Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth
Programme: TIFF Docs
Documentaries don’t often deliver thrilling car chases on the level that Hollywood provides in dramas like The French Connection or The Bourne Ultimatum. However, The Devil’s Drivers offers some action sequences that eclipse Hollywood thrill rides. As drivers Hamouda and Ismail navigate the Palestine border and ferry Palestinians from one world to the next so that they may simply provide for their families, The Devil’s Drivers finds taut and suspenseful images that Hollywood could never muster. The stakes are real in The Devil’s Drivers as the two men careen their cars through sandy dunes and across winding roads, evading Israeli soldiers who assume that any Palestinian heading for the border is a terrorist.
Shot over eight years in intimate proximity to ordinary people taking extraordinary measures to survive, The Devil’s Drivers is an intense odyssey through one of the world’s most volatile terrains. Hamouda and his cousin, Ismail, live in the town of Yatta. Their underground taxi service is unique to Palestine’s geo-political relationship with Israel, for their town is in close proximity to the one portion of the border between the two countries that remains unfinished. Filmmakers Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth explain how that gap affords a lifeline to Palestinian Bedouins who need safe passage to Israel. It’s no easy trek, however, to navigate the sun-scorched no man’s land between the territories. Soldiers patrol the area constantly. Checkpoints materialise without warning to ferret out any Palestinians who want to cross.
As the cameras go along for the ride, Carsenty and Abugeth observe the struggles of ordinary people in search of basic human rights. The passengers of the taxi service are labourers embarking on trips to work 12 to 14 hour days so that they mean support their families. They are elderly Palestinians seeking medical care. They are people looking to reconnect with loved ones. Transits permits are a hot commodity and the doc illustrates how the tax service is born from necessity. The risk that Hamouda and Ismail take is admirably courageous.
The filmmakers’ presence offers a safety net as the Israeli soldiers show leniency before the foreigners, but the drivers emphasize that the camera itself doubles the risk: it captures images that Israeli doesn’t want the world to see. The premise of The Devil’s Drivers inevitably yields some extraordinary footage that sends one’s pulse racing. The drivers tag team their rides and communicate constantly. They survey the field while putting the pedal to the metal, hurtling towards safety without alerting suspicion. Carsenty holds the camera tucked out of sight, often capturing the ride simply by framing the drivers’ sharp and focused faces as they command the situation.
The film puts a viewer in a position of breathless suspense. Unable to see what is happening, one often simply has to hold on and trust the drivers throughout the ride. The terrain offers its own danger, too, as the film observes the travellers caught in limbo when forces control the area. They seek refuge under the shade of a lone tree while biding their time. For the elderly passengers, though, these necessary interludes can be among the most dangerous moments of the journey.
A run-in with the Israeli police illustrates the risk the drivers take when one arrest leaves a man ripped from his family. His only crime is helping his neighbours. Moreover, the eight-year shoot coincides with the rise of ISIS and the Third Intifada, so tensions run extremely high. The Devil’s Drivers observes the repercussions of a constructing a security state in which fear rules the people.
Despite the thrilling car chases and covert documentation of the excessive might of Israeli forces, the film’s most compelling observations are those in the villages of Palestine. As the cameras step out of the cars and document the daily lives of Hamouda, Ismail, and their families, The Devil’s Drivers witnesses the hardship that necessitate the taxi service. The families haven’t had running water in over a decade and make pilgrimages to the local well. Fuel and electricity are scarce. Daily staples on one side of the wall are luxuries on the other. The Devil’s Drivers is a high-octane human rights essay that proves most effective when it gives pause to the stakes at play. These moments underscore the burden that families carry daily in a conflict with no end in sight.
The Devil’s Drivers premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.