The Truth About Jenin

Aviv Lavie
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Aviv Lavie

Two men are sitting in a small screening room, watching footage of an unpaved road, half-destroyed buildings and piles of rubble, all taken at the the Jenin refugee camp, in April 2002. Yuval, one of the bulldozer drivers the Israel Defense Forces sent to the camp after the army's plan went awry, sits in front. Nizar Hassan, a film director who shot this footage, sits behind him, asking him questions.

This is a scene from Hassan's upcoming film "Ijtiah" ("Invasion") about the events that took place in the Jenin refugee camp, and in it he is showing Yuval images of enormous destruction. Now and then, Yuval sorts it out: "That's me, that's not me." Sometimes it seems he's trying to minimize the dimensions of what he did. "Half-destroyed houses are my work. I didn't demolish any house down to the foundations."

During their conversation, something else becomes evident. Yuval speaks of his fear of reactions to his participation in the movie, afraid someone will slap him with the label of traitor and worried about the way Hassan is using his appearance in the film. And then it turns out they had an agreement. Hassan would show Yuval the finished product and get his approval. He showed him, and Yuval gave his OK.

Hassan is not bothered that "Invasion", is coming out after three other films on the same subject already created controversies in Israel, and appear to have sated the media and public interest in the subject. The debate over Mohammed Bakri's "Jenin, Jenin," isn't over yet, and now there's even "Jenin, Jenin, Jenin" - the propagandistic counter-documentary made by a French Jew calling himself Pierre Rehov [whose last name means "street" in Hebrew], which was shown last week on state-controlled Channel One. And even before those two versions, there was an IDF version of the same battle, released much more quietly.

In terms of the public, Hassan missed the boat, but he says he really doesn't care - for a simple reason. He really doesn't care if an Israeli audience sees the movie or discusses it, and he doesn't care what an Israeli audience thinks of it. As far as he's concerned, he's a Palestinian director with Israeli citizenship, who made a Palestinian movie for the eyes and hearts of a Palestinian public, and the Arab world in general. The Jews? "If they want to, they'll see it, if they don't want to, they won't."

Crystallization process

The idea of making the movie about the IDF's move into Jenin already began crystallizing in Hassan's mind during the first few days of the events last April. From his house on the hill in Mashad, a village not far from Nazareth that over the years has become a suburban neighborhood of the city, he could see the helicopters flying overhead on their way to Jenin, which he says is "20 minutes and two checkpoints away."

Hassan was afraid: "Palestinians also have fears, even if they are called an Israeli citizen. And sometimes those fears are not realistic, and I know they are not realistic, but during those nights, I kept on thinking that the helicopters would descend on Nazareth, too."

Hassan followed the reports in the media. Very quickly it became evident that the refugee camp was the big story of the army's Operation Defensive Shield. The entire West Bank fell in two hours, but in Jenin, the fighting went on for days. He called a friend, producer Ra'ad Andoni, who was under curfew in Bethlehem. They e-mailed ideas back and forth. They shared the impression that there was a heroic Palestinian battle under way in the camp. Totally by coincidence, someone from a Swedish TV station called Hassan to commission a movie about the events in the camp. "They put up a little bit of money, so Ra'ad and I decided to go for it." Hassan went into Jenin before the troops pulled out.

"They took us in through a side road. It was scary as hell. We walked for seven hours through fields to get into the camp. I didn't take a camera. I just wanted to feel the layout of things. The second time I went it was with a camera, the day after the army retreated and took up positions on the hills. As far as I know, I was the first filmmaker in the camp after the fighting.

"I didn't see all the destruction at first. The first scenes were almost pastoral. But the deeper I went in, the harder it became for me to breathe. I have never taken part in a battle; I have never seen the results of war first-hand. That was my first encounter with such scenes of horror. The air was full of the smell of death. The Palestinians were speaking then about 500 dead, the IDF about 250, and I was convinced there were thousands buried, that the entire camp was under the rubble. That was something I had never smelled in my life - the burned smell that is impossible to describe. When I saw all the destruction I was struck silent. I couldn't believe there was anyone, no matter what their reason, who could do something like this, especially the same Israelis I see in the supermarket, who apologize if they happen to bump into me."

It is difficult to avoid asking if he had the same feeling when he saw the pictures from the Park Hotel massacre, which provided the official reason for Operation Defensive Shield. Did he also find it hard to believe that there, too, some person, whatever his reasons were, could do what he did?

"The cycle that you opened with that question now has no end, because to the same extent, I could say to you that it is difficult to believe there is a people, no matter what their reasons, which is capable of coming along and taking the homeland away from another people."

`Hypocrisy and patronizing'

It's exactly those kinds of exchanges that make Hassan, one of the leading Palestinian filmmakers, a little sick of the ongoing friction with Israeli society. As time goes by, dialogue with Israelis becomes more difficult for him. The conversation with him is full of little crises and provocations, with each side trying to lay the blame on the other. He doesn't miss an opportunity to drive the conversation onto the shoals and claim the same thing against me. He believes the dominant Israeli discourse cannot accept a Palestinian with a clear identity, developed national consciousness and no interest in sycophantism toward Israelis. I believe he only partially meets those flattering criteria, and at the same time, he's an intellectual who has not yet found the way to solve the frustrating dilemma of his identity - an Israeli citizen who belongs to a cultural and national minority.

Hassan, 34, was born and raised in Mashad, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is a highly respected filmmaker and teacher. Last year he taught film at the Sapir College in Sderot. His father was principal of a school in the village; his mother, a teacher. He has two brothers and two sisters. One of his sisters, Manar, was one of the founders of the Israeli-Arab feminist organization Al-Panar, the Lighthouse.

After completing a master's degree in anthropology at Haifa University, he moved to Tel Aviv, where he worked as a researcher on Educational TV, gaining some experience in producing and directing. In 1994, he made his first important film, "Istiklal" ("Independence"). The film is a fascinating examination of the attitude of Israeli Arab citizens to Israel's independence day, as seen through the story of Mashad. One of the key characters in the film is the local council head, Hussein Suleiman, who kept an Israeli flag on his roof all year round and brags about his friendship with leading Jews, like Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Ezer Weizman. The film is not flattering to Suleiman.

The opening sequence in the movie is difficult to forget: It's about one of the first independence days in the village, in the early 1950s. A day before the holiday, the flag goes up over the school, but overnight it disappears. The people of Mashad look for it frantically, worried about the response of the military government of the time, but it was as if the earth "swallowed it up." A few days go by and the village elders gather for one of their meetings. One of the old men lifts his galabia, and there's the flag. He had made underwear out of it. "Istiklal" was a classic Israeli-Jewish production. The funding came from Keshet, as part of a program presented by Yaron London. London edited the film, Nurit Kedar produced it. The film won first prize at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, but Keshet, which paid for it, decided to show it very late at night. As for the director, already then he felt uncomfortable with the platform he used to make his debut movie.

"Meretz people drove me crazy with their hypocrisy and patronizing," he said at the time, in an interview with the daily Ma'ariv. "But I don't have an alternative. I can make movies with people like London and Nurit Kedar, but I prefer to work with Palestinians."

Hassan continued his career making documentaries. His next outstanding film was "Jasmine," about the balance of power between men and women in Arab society. It also took the honors at the Jerusalem festival. Together with his students at Sapir College, he made a short film last year, in which the climax was a brief, angry interview he gave to the student radio station on campus. The interviewer asked, "As a member of a minority group, do you think you see things differently?" Hassan responded: "You're a member of a minority group," and slammed down the phone.

In previous elections, he voted for Azmi Bishara's Balad party, but in the last election, he didn't bother going to the polls.

"Since the events of October 2000 in the Galilee, I understood the state declared war on us," he says. "And I don't participate in the elections of someone who has declared war on me." But it's not only his relations with the state that have gone awry. Hassan feels it is difficult for him to speak.

"I just want a quiet life with everyone who is here and to be allowed to call this country my homeland. I can't stand wars, and I don't hate anyone, but I'm fed up with having to explain myself all the time, to think all the time what they might think, to be in a constant position of self-justification and apology. It not only is confusing, but it puts an end to the desire for dialogue. I don't feel free in this discourse, in the sense that it doesn't matter what I do and say; every word, even the most neutral, is immediately regarded as full of nuance and interpreted in all sorts of ways. What difference does it make what I say, if ultimately, someone is going to label me a Jew-hater anyway ? There's stuff here that makes the dialogue impossible."

Pride and sorrow

Mohammed Bakri's "Jenin, Jenin," which created a storm of controversy in the Jewish public, especially among those who didn't see it, was entirely devoted to testimony by Palestinians about their suffering in the refugee camp, and presented them as helpless victims of a conquering, merciless army. Nizar Hassan takes the events in an entirely different direction. When he went into the camp, he hoped to find support for his feeling that there had been a heroic Palestinian battle. He says that the reality he discovered was far beyond his expectations.

"At first," he recalls, "everyone I met was a functionary of the Palestinian Authority who walked around and told anyone ready to listen, `come see what they did.' But for the first time I wanted to know what we did to defend ourselves. In the first hour, everyone we met was either a journalist or someone from Jenin curious about what happed. Then we began meeting people from the camp, and they behaved completely differently. They were very proud. They came out quiet; as if they knew exactly what they were doing during all the nightmarish days and nights. They were also terribly sad. I nearly called the movie `Pride and Sadness,' but I decided that was too romantic. This wasn't war. It was resistance, and the victory of the resistance. And that always means, everywhere and always, a combination of pride and sadness."

Hassan's movie does not describe the Israeli soldiers as monsters. They are practically unseen. The residents of the camp who are interviewed speak mostly about themselves. A sad-looking girl speaks about a boy she loved who was killed; others speak about women who carried food and water to fighters under fire, and say proudly that out of the 14,000 people in the camp, at least 2,000 took part in the fighting or actively assisted the fighters. They describe how they gathered the weapons, 500 rifles, including old British models, which were distributed to anyone who could use one. Home-made bombs were prepared from a combination of sugar, charcoal and fertilizer. And finally, the youths from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah managed to unite against the Israeli invader. The myth of Palestinian heroism gets a pat on the back in Hassan's movie.

Hassan asks, "How many movies about the Palestinian problem have depicted that angle? There's the permanent image of the Palestinian as the pitiable victim. Yes, he is a victim, and certainly pitiable, but in light of what I saw, there was no reason to repeat once again the image of the miserable, crippled Palestinian who comes out of the pages of history asking for mercy from his occupier or the American or European patron of his occupier. It's time to show that the Palestinian acts, thinks, participates in history, controls the reality in which he lives, is aware of the situation and has one cause: to win."

And will he win?

Hassan: "He won't win by throwing out the Jews and slaughtering them, but by freeing himself and his land from the occupiers and the occupation. He'll win by succeeding in creating a different society, in which Jews and Arabs can live. If he doesn't succeed at that, he fails. What do you think? That I don't believe this? Do you think I'll sit by fatalistically as if I'll never be able to change my reality, and continue asking you to have pity on me?"

Between Sderot and Cairo

"Invasion's" premiere was supposed to take place in Amman, but was postponed because of the war in Iraq. Instead, there was a double premiere, particularly celebratory: Some 1,200 people gathered in Nazareth, at the Frank Sinatra Hall, and the same night, there was a premiere in Beirut at the Al-Medina Theater. The events included a phone call from Hassan to the audience in Beirut, where Lebanese actress and theater manager Nidal Ashkar greeted him. More screenings are planned for other Arab cities.

No wonder, then, that Hassan is unperturbed that the premiere in Israel at Sderot's Cinematheque last week was far less successful. The special bus that went from Tel Aviv's Cinematheque to the one in Sderot carried only four people. The Tel Aviv film community did not swarm down to Sderot. Actor Alon Abutbul was there, as was director Tomer Heiman (whose works about Aviv Gefen and about a youth gang, have given him prominence in the industry), but more or less, they were the only well-known faces. It is difficult to tell if the poor turnout was because of laziness about going to Sderot or the alienation between Hassan's narrative and the industry people and their ability to accept it.

Hassan, as is his wont, is certain it was the second reason: "I was very glad that the gap between me and the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinema community has been exposed."

About 100 people did show up and filled about half the hall - mostly students from Sapir College and residents of the town. The response, perhaps surprisingly, was sympathetic. No protests were heard. Sinai Abt, who runs Channel Eight, which is meant to broadcast the movie in about two months, remembers warm handshakes and people asking how they could get a videotape of the movie.

It was shot over 28 days in the camp. Hassan and his people rented a house in Jenin city, about two minutes away by car from the camp, and every time they went to work they had to stay a day or two. Crossing the Green Line meant arguments at checkpoints and bureaucratic difficulties. They decided to edit the film in Ramallah. Nazareth doesn't have editing studios and Hassan believes a Palestinian film should be made in Palestine. But the closures made working in Ramallah impossible, so they went to Amman, where they also had no luck ("there's no film industry there, it's just not it") so the crew went to Cairo.

Hassan spent four months in the Egyptian capital, with a few trips home to Mashad. He describes it as an enormously fulfilling experience for him. "It was amazing, totally. Professionally, there is a very advanced industry, but it's also the discussions, the human relations. In Cairo I could speak my mind in my language without having to explain 1,000 times what I mean. I found people who shared my concerns as a human being. I could finally deal with film that speaks to people."

At this point in the conversation, we are reminded again of the fragility of the Arab-Israeli discourse, when Hassan defines Nazareth as an occupied city. To Israeli ears, this sounds like an argument that will end with "he wants us all gone." But when I tell him that I am envious of his Egyptian experience, because as an Israeli Jew, there is no other place that I can call home, he feels that I am recommending an alternative homeland for him. His answer was: "My home is Nazareth and I love it. And I will never trade it for anywhere else in the world. In a normal situation, Cairo and Nazareth would be one unit, and then I wouldn't have to deal with provocation - like what you are doing to me right now."