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‘Closest Thing’ to Freedom: Reel Rock 17 Climbs Past Violence in the West Bank

‘Resistance Climbing’ arrived yesterday as part of Reel Rock 17’s worldwide premiere online. Watch a group of climbers grow bonds too strong for a de facto war zone to break — and pry the film’s famously disenchanted American creator out of a familiar malaise.

a climber pulling hard on a holdUrwah Askar pulling hard in 'Resistance Climbing,' part of Reel Rock 17; (photo/screenshot)
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Palestinians in the long-disputed West Bank are accustomed to carrying out the functions of everyday life against a backdrop of violence. Ongoing conflict wracks the West Bank on a basis that regularly kills combatants and civilians alike — and it’s been that way for a long time.

Without swerving into international politics: Life for many Palestinians amounts to a struggle to survive.

But life — as one small group of West Bank climbers fight for it — should be richer than that.

That’s the backdrop to “Resistance Climbing,” Nick Rosen and Andrew Bisharat’s entry in Reel Rock 17. The climbing film series has already begun its yearly barnstorming tour around the United States, and it premiered online last night (“tickets” start at $30 for streaming access).

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Against a lineup that’s heavy with household names of crushers from Europe and the U.S., “Resistance Climbing” makes a distinct mark. I do not predict another climbing film soon that documents the lives of athletes forced to walk miles to the crag around segregated neighborhoods. Or one that records live gunfire — or makes Andrew Bisharat cry.

But our story begins long before he’s moved to tears (or apparently emotionally reachable). The camera fades in on Bisharat, recognizable as ever in his brooding way. The veteran climber has made a career out of spitting venom, and here, he’s clearly sick of it all. He’s tangling with the increasingly well-worn axiom that climbing is meaningless, and he’s fumbling around in a suburban haze.

Then, a bright-eyed young friend calls from the West Bank, promising he can help change Bish’s jaded point of view. Tim Bruns traveled to Jordan after attending Colorado College and effectively got the Palestinian climbing scene off the ground by bolting cliffs and starting meetups.

At first, I balked at what appeared to be a white savior narrative.

two white men in turbans
Bruns (right) and “Will,” who helped him start the West Bank climbing scene. Spies? (photo/screenshot)

But the film takes aim at that status immediately — and in a twist, it turns out Bisharat himself is Palestinian.

Once the table is set, the action gets underway. There’s a push-and-pull structure that seems designed to induce states of reprieve in the viewer, and then jar them back awake.

After Bisharat meets Bruns on the West Bank side of the area’s security barrier with Israel — the “Apartheid wall,” as Palestinians call it — the two explore a local market. A vendor knows his last name. Bruns introduces Bisharat to the climbers at the bouldering gym he built, and they troll Bisharat for punting off a V4.

“Go back to Boulder so you can do some more bouldering!” they heckle.

One by one, the film introduces the climbers, and they soon troop out to a local crag.

It’s an end to one of “Resistance Climbing”’s characteristic idylls. To get to the cliff, they have to get around a “settlement” — a protected area for Israeli citizens to live inside the West Bank, where Palestinians are barred from entry.

After the hour-long hike and some warmups, Bisharat sits down with a woman named Hiba Shaheen for an interview. A gunshot — seemingly loud enough to be very nearby — pierces the silence between sentences. Then another, louder one does it again. Bisharat ends the interview.

These Palestinian climbers lead lives wholly different from anything most of the climbing world experiences. Living alongside them is what starts to chip away at Bisharat’s surly armor.

There’s Tawfiq, who’s the strongest climber in the West Bank and a member of its most marginalized ethnic group: the Bedouins. When he shows the documentary crew his modest house, it leaves Bisharat lost for words.

bisharat and tawfiq stand in tawfiq's shack home
The home of the strongest climber in the West Bank; (photo/screenshot)

There’s Urwah Askar, who experiences the random searches and seizures the Israeli military routinely carries out in the town where his family lives in Hizma Village.

He sits below a cliff explaining the home invasions with rimming eyes.

“The soldiers come to our houses at 3 in the morning, just to practice searching people’s houses,” he explained in the film. “When someone protests this, they arrest them and put them in the Jeep. Before I leave home every time, I don’t know if I’ll be back or not.”

a soldier takes a cell phone photo of two children inside a home
Footage from an Israeli army search of a Palestinian home; (photo/screenshot)

Then he’s overwhelmed, and requests that the crew “stop.”

“Resistance Climbing” does not skimp on jarring footage that depicts the danger its subjects face. But, much like they do, the film also makes time to focus on climbing. Crag visits are mostly relatable vignettes: equal parts joking around and embracing time spent in nature with friends.

A texture of resilience builds, and, with it, beauty. There’s bravery in these climbers that I’ve never had to marshal. Simultaneously, they consistently give off the casual grace found in only the best climbing cohorts.

By the time Bisharat’s homecoming arc concludes itself in the film’s final act, I realized I’d completely forgotten about it. And it felt like he had, too.

a hug between three people
Bisharat (center) saying long goodbyes; (photo/screenshot)

Sometimes, there’s no need to force it. Faris Abu Gosh lives in the Qualandia refugee camp. He’s named after a Palestinian boy who became a martyr when he died from gunfire at 12 after famously fighting Israeli tanks by throwing rocks at them in 2000.

“I can’t always be fighting,” Abu Gosh said. “I want to live as well. I want to climb and dance.”

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