Film review: “Territories”

One of Larry Towell’s photographs featured in Territories. (Larry Towell/Magnum Images)

Territory is a central theme in all political conflicts in the world, as national borders across the globe have consistently shifted. Territories is a new feature documentary by Montreal filmmaker Mary Ellen Davis that explores the photographic work and global journeys of Larry Towell, of the world-renowned photo agency Magnum, who travels along the world’s most conflicted border zones, from Latin America to the Middle East.

Indigenous people across the world have been victims of borderlines drawn in bloody wars fueled by colonial interests, and it’s these too-often-untold stories that are found in the striking photos of Larry Towell. From the electric fences of the Mexico-US border to Israel’s concrete separation wall in Palestine, understanding the violence caused by borders is central to Towell’s work.

“Land is the theme that has tied everything together that I have done as a photographer,” Towell explained in an interview with the author. “The Palestinian case is a clear example of the way that the loss of land is the loss of culture and identity. We also see this reality here in Canada, Australia and across the Americas with indigenous people, who have waged rebellions, like the Palestinians, due to dispossession from land.”

A meditative film, Territories follows Towell along the borders of the world, mixing his still photography in black-and-white with live footage and music by Montreal composer Antoine Bustros, spanning genres from jazz to Middle Eastern melodies. Davis has made a striking documentary, capturing the creative work and mind of a celebrated photographer.

Viewers [follow] Towell travel the unmarked graves along the US-Mexico boundary with the metal border fence as a backdrop as he snaps his award-winning shots. Towell is clearly distinguished from other photographers stylistically as his refined approach refrains from digital equipment while offering sensitive portraits of communities in struggle.

In Mexico, Towell examined the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mennonite communities. “Due to the NAFTA, many Mennonite communities were forced to become landless people. Thirty percent are now landless people,” explains Towell. “Over 60 percent of Mexico’s Mennonite community was forced to migrate to Canada to look for work due to the imposition of corporate farming under NAFTA.”

From the US-Mexico border, Territories then visits the historical lands of Palestine, a central element to the film. Towell explains his relationship and understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as rooted in the Palestinians’ loss of land.

“In 1993 I first travelled to the Middle East at the time of the Oslo Accords, and arriving in Gaza, I simply realized that this territory was a big refugee camp, of mainly rural people, or farmers who lost their land due to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. [Theirs is] a landless reality that until now has never been officially recognized by Israel, as Palestinians continue to live under Israeli occupation in open-air prisons called the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

Stefan Christoff is a member of Tadamon! Montreal and frequent contributor to The Electronic Intifada.

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