'Cinema Jenin,' a West Bank Tragedy

A German-Palestinian documentary film chronicles the attempt to build apolitical cinema in the hyperpolitical environment of the so-called 'capital of suicide bombers.'

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

The headlines two years ago were big and optimistic. In early August 2010, after 23 years during which it accumulated dust and layer upon layer of pigeon droppings, the only movie theater in the Palestinian city of Jenin was renewed and opened.

That was a real cause for celebration. Television networks from all over the world arrived to record the event, which made headlines in the Israeli media too. Inside the luxurious theater, equipped with a new and advanced sound system, hundreds of guests sank into the comfortable seats. The reception in the city that had been dubbed "the capital of the suicide bombers" was elegant and festive. Everyone kept repeating the names of the famous people, Mick Jagger and Roger Waters, for example, who supported the theater and made its revival possible. A light breeze of optimism, the sign of a healthy society eager for life, was suddenly blowing from the West Bank.

That is the moment that concludes the documentary film "Cinema Jenin," to be broadcast today on the Yes Docu satellite channel, which chronicles the years and exhausting preparations that led up to the opening of the cinema. The end of the film is a moment of pure joy, total satisfaction for those who dreamed and believed and saw their work come to fruition. A genuine happy ending, the kind that is worthy of American blockbusters, which was preceded by three years of difficulty and a goal that most of the time seemed to be receding, all of which was well told in the film. Sometimes, the film makes clear, the life force and good will can overcome every obstacle.

But in real life, that was not the end of the story for Cinema Jenin; instead, the movie theater's rebirth was interrupted at its height. This is not Hollywood, after all, it's the West Bank.

Keeping their distance

Three people are at the center of the Cinema Jenin project: German director Marcus Vetter; a bereaved father from Jenin, Ismail Khatib; and a translator who became the project manager, Fakhri Hamad, today studying for a master's degree in law. Vetter and Hamad are now living in Germany and keeping their distance from the Jenin, mainly because of the danger hovering over them since the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a colleague and friend, in April 2011. This week they sounded hesitant, trying to hold onto hope, but it seemed they were losing the battle to avoid politics and focus stubbornly on something normal and uncontroversial. Even if they are disgusted by the accusations that their project is guided by ulterior motives, these accusations are sticking to them and their movie theater.

The theater and accompanying film began when Vetter filmed a documentary, "Heart in Jenin," about Khatib, a local farmer whose son Ahmed was shot to death by an Israeli soldier, and who decided to donate his son's organs to Israeli children.

"That was one film, based on one Palestinian, Ismail, and his story concerned so many other people," said Vetter this week in a phone conversation from his home in Germany. "The reactions I heard were that if there were more Palestinians like him, with opinions like his, there would be genuine hope for peace. My answer was that in my opinion there are many like him, and I also wanted to prove it. I was convinced that people the world over and in Israel don't know that there are others who want a normal life." Khatib began thinking along the same lines, Vetter adds.

"We screened 'Heart in Jenin' in the Freedom Theater [managed by Mer-Khamis]," says Vetter. "Until then people thought that Ismail had sold his son's organs to Israelis, and by means of the film they realized that the situation was much more complex. They understood his motivation."

Heartened by the local reaction, the two men decided to established civic activities in Jenin, particularly for children. Khatib told about the lively movie theater that was in the city until the first intifada in the late 1980s. Its condition, as seen in the the new documentary, was in total neglect, on the verge of falling apart. That was also the point at which Hamad joined the project. "They tried many times to do something with the cinema," says Hamad. "There was a plan to demolish and rebuild, to open a commercial center with stores, they even talked about rebuilding the movie theater. None of that happened, so it was understandable that our project was greeted with skepticism."

And it wasn't easy for you, either. Hamad:"True. When the theater was founded it was built by five businessmen and philanthropists from the city. Cinema Jenin opened in 1958 - and meanwhile the children and grandchildren of the owners have become the owners of the rights. When we began to examine the legal situation of the building, there were 27 heirs, and each of them had his own point of view and his own interests. The skepticism was logical. They called us fools who were opening a cinema at a time when others had nothing to eat, they said that we were naive and that it wouldn't happen, but there were also those who supported the idea, even many who did."

The film tells of long hours of meetings with dozens of politicians, clerics and the building's owners. They repeatedly refuse to sign the contract, or reject the one they have already signed, add and amend a clause here and there, piling up unanticipated difficulties.

It's logical to think that the main opposition would come from conservatives.

"The truth is that all of them, including Juliano, warned us that Hamas would be opposed. We decided to go to the municipality, which was headed by a Hamas member. We spoke to the mayor and he was not at all opposed. The opponents were mainly those who wanted to profit from the project. I'm an ordinary, normal person and it was important to me that this be a project that nobody would profit from. We didn't agree to pay protection money and we ignored those who applied pressure and were opposed. Before the opening of the cinema there were rumors that they would break up the event with demonstrations, but that was no problem in the end."

But it's not that there were no problems related to conservative beliefs and religion. During the course of the work, many volunteers showed up; at its height, dozens of volunteers from all over the world were staying in Jenin. To a great extent they are the ones who made it possible to complete the project. To make things easier for them, Hamad, Khatib and Vetter rented an adjacent building and turned it into a guest house. Rumors about a so-called lack of modesty there also threatened to disrupt the project. But none of these problems even approached the financial ones encountered by the three men.

"We were very naive, and we didn't ask an economist to estimate how much this project should cost, we simply dived into it," says Hamad. "We did an overall calculation at the beginning and it turned out that we were way off the mark. The problem was that the question of how long we could continue was unclear all the time. To tell the truth, had we done a precise calculation at the start, it probably wouldn't have happened, because we succeeded only thanks to the volunteers. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd contacted me and donated 150,000 euros, and that's how we completed the opening of the cinema."

Politics intrudes

Yet the technical and practical problems were only some of the hurdles on the road to completing the project. Despite the three founders' intention to steer clear of politics, it kept intruding, and it does to this day.

Vetter emphasizes how important it was to the founding generation to preserve the social character of the cinema, while deliberately ignoring other voices. Those other voices also came from intellectuals like Mer-Khamis and filmmaker Udi Aloni, who got involved in the project at a later stage, as well as from local VIPs such as Zakaria Zubeidi, a leader in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and former Israeli security target who quit the militia and became involved in the Freedom Theater.

Vetter explains: "We wanted to build a good movie theater, to discuss sound rather than the conflict. An Israeli sound engineer and a Palestinian sound engineer can communicate better and more easily if they talk about a professional matter. They have more in common than politics and conflict. The problem was that we repeatedly got involved in a discussion of 'normalization,' of whether this was an attempt to normalize the existing situation."

That's a discussion that can be dangerous. Vetter: "Absolutely. We realized how fragile the entire project was. In my opinion the great achievement of the film lies in its ability to show all the points of view surrounding the movie theater: Fakhri, who says spectators from all over the world can come to the theater, and opposite him Zubeidi, who says that being political is an obligation. There are high and low classes in Jenin, there are people who are politically aware and those who are less so, people who are more pragmatic and those who are less so, and people in the middle of the road. When I arrived there for the first time I thought that there were terrorists and fighters in Jenin and no normalcy at all. I feel that the film shows that the ordinary people are there and they need support."

One of the marvelous moments in the film is a conversation between Hamad and Vetter side by side with one between Mer-Khamis and Aloni. The Israelis speak in extreme terms, demand that the Palestinians set down conditions for guests from Israel who are interested in coming to the cinema, for example that every guest sign a BDS - boycott, divestment and sanctions - declaration against Israel. Hamad, on the other hand, is totally opposed.

"That really was an amazing moment," says Vetter. "The Israelis accuse Fakhri [Hamad] of being a 'normalizer' - encouraging normalization with Israel. I felt that perhaps the intellectuals on both sides are defining what the conflict is and what normalization is, and by doing so are making things insoluble. You can destroy any idea in Palestinian society with the word 'normalization.'"

Hamad: "I have six siblings. We were all arrested in the first intifada and some of us in the second one too. I don't come from the moon, I suffer from the occupation just as I suffer from the corruption of the Palestinian leaders. After 60 years of conflict I believe that resistance is one way and it causes damage. If we could get the normal Israeli populace, people who are likely to vote for the extremists under certain circumstances, to understand that we want an ordinary life, as they do, we can change things. I believe that in this way, through cinema for example, we can explain ourselves. It was very strange to get instructions from Udi Aloni on how to protest and how to resist. He shouldn't come to my community and convince them that Israelis are bad."

Evil omen

That scene is exceptional for another reason: Just when it was being edited, says Vetter, Mer-Khamis was murdered at the entrance of the Freedom Theater by a Palestinian who has yet to be caught. In the film, the scene is interrupted with a caption about the murder, the first evil omen of what's happened to the cinema since then. At that point, over a year ago, the project seemed to have fallen apart. The bank account steadily dwindled, and in the wake of the murder, the founding trio was forced to evacuate the volunteers who were now under a serious security threat. Something also changed in the attitudes of Vetter and Hamad, who in the end left the city and the cinema project.

"I've never been afraid in Jenin, but the murder of Juliano changed my mind," says Hamad. "There are people in Jenin who want to cause the collapse of everything we have. The existence of a cinema indicates that in some way there is life. We related to films, cinema, as a way to learn about other cultures, but after the murder I understood that ideas and words can murder and be murdered, too. People wanted to bring Jenin back to the situation in the first years of the intifada and I began to feel that there was something dangerous."

Vetter: "It was more than a shock, to tell the truth. We had known each other for three years and the possibility that that would happen was something unimaginable. I knew that [Mer-Khamis] had been threatened, but I couldn't imagine it. From that moment I stopped coming to Jenin. It wasn't that I was afraid of becoming a target myself, it's more related to the fact that the heart was taken away. I went to the funeral and after that I didn't return."

Today the cinema is managed, with difficulty, by Dr. Suad Rishmawi, and is fighting for its continued existence. None of those involved in it now will speak to the Israeli media for fear of reaction from some locals. Hamad and Vetter try to maintain an optimistic tone when they talk about Cinema Jenin and about its unclear future.

"I hope the movie theater will continue to exist and be what it was meant to be," says Hamad. "The cinema has new managers who have other considerations. We didn't take into account rumors and opinions from the surrounding population, and we paid a price for that."

Says Vetter: "My point of hope is that the cinema is now being managed by a woman. She's the face of the cinema and I find that very symbolic. This project didn't fail - the theater survived despite its difficult situation, and despite the great opposition it arouses. It's true that the identity we gave it has disappeared, and now it's something else, but even in its present identity there is hope, and we have to help it."



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