Juliano Mer Khamis, the director of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin’s refugee camp, was murdered in April last year. When I started to write this essay in the summer of 2010 he was still alive, though with a storm brewing around him, as it had been for very many years before I or any cinema had arrived in Jenin. Recently, I finally watched the film that he made for his mother called Arna’s Children. Watching the film now in 2012 I am watching the dead, who listen to ghosts, who speak about other ghosts. No one is left. Juliano’s voice speaks over a moving image of young boys pretending to be dogs in an acting class. He tells us that one day, not very long from now, one of these young boys will be killed while on a suicide mission in Israel. The other boys in the scene will die as well, for different reasons, mostly in combat.
I cannot say what the ground felt like the day Juliano was shot. I was not in Palestine on this day. It came over the news, like a sad dream where the image you see never amounts to the feeling that you get in your stomach. I think - wait it didn’t happen like that, it was just... but it wasn’t. It happened when a car pulled over with a man and a gun, one day outside the Freedom Theatre. There it was, just like that.
As I will speak about hearts in this essay, specifically, about the heart of Jenin, I can’t help but think that the death of the many bodies that made up the Freedom Theatre - that is, Arna and her all of her children, including Juliano - is a part of the larger continuing death of the body of Jenin itself. This is a death which keeps dying. I keep looking for signs, for messages hidden in these bodies on my screen, but the message of the story of the Freedom Theatre and Cinema Jenin - if there is one - is very dark: They can cut off our eyes and tongues, arms and legs, break our bones, take our vital organs... but what then? And what about the heart? What about the spirit?
I am not an advocate of the saying: “there are two sides to every story...” - a phrase that I often hear from Americans back home when trying to confront my opinions of the situation here. In Israel and Palestine we are confronted with one madness, where children are killed in the street and their organs are dispersed. In the next scene young boys are transformed into resistance fighters, whole lifeworlds are flattened by fire and cinemas appear out of nowhere, and then a good man is shot down dead in the road. This one lost his life, this one lost his heart. You know what I will say now, that in the end we all lose. I am trying my best to think my way out of it, maybe to the other side of the story everyone keeps talking about, but I cannot find it, I cannot find hope. Finally, in my heart of hearts, I still cannot convey the sadness I felt as I watched Arna, being filmed by her son, saying goodbye to her theatre and the community it held before she died of cancer. I know now that she was also saying goodbye to a Jenin that would never exist again: a momentary-freedom-in-space on a permanent edge of disaster - she was saying goodbye to a Jenin that I would never meet.
What about a cinema?
I must admit, I have been uncomfortable with this all from the beginning. Maybe I am prone to distrust these kinds of projects anyway, so I am trying to examine my influences. Why exactly do I feel so uncomfortable right now? Everyone around me is either telling me that this cinema is the best thing to ever happen to Jenin: a supposed catalyst for a greater peace and security manifesting itself in an otherwise volatile society, or that it is a symbol of a situation declining into a complete-militarily-enforced-cultural-occupation. However, opinions are not meeting each other in the intermingling of foreign investors, local activists, governmental officials and journalists, no one tells the other how they really feel, and everywhere there is bitterness and distrust. This is a story of being caught in between a magical cinema and a traumatised city. However, I will not pretend that I am somehow neutral in this equation. I am not neutral. But I think both falling under the illusions of a “peace” cinema or siding with its opponents can result in problems. This is not magic, this is not salvation, this is not the end of the world. This is a cinema, but how can a cinema be so emotionally complicated?
Maybe it begins with a heart.
In 2005, a young boy was playing with a toy gun in the streets of Jenin. An Israeli soldier saw him in the road, thought the toy was the real thing, and shot the boy in the head. Ahmad, the boy, was twelve-years old. He was then taken to a hospital in Israel. He was not going to live. The doctor talked to his father about the possibility of donating his son’s organs to other children. The parents agreed, and their martyred son’s organs saved the lives of five Israeli children, including one orthodox Jewish girl. The documentary, Heart of Jenin, by directors Marcus Vetter (a German) and Leon Geller (an Israeli) was made shortly after. The film follows Ismael Khatib, the boy's father, as he meets the children who received his son’s organs. This is the backdrop for the cinema we now sit in. The cinema’s rhetoric states that after the film was finished, Ismael asked Marcus to make a cinema in Jenin to show the film and to create a safe space for Ahmad’s friends. A few years later the project generated enough interest and money, and the cinema was remade. In the end, Ahmad’s life was transferred into five Israeli children, a documentary film, and a living cinema. But something about this kind of reincarnation is not right. Neither the film nor the cinema is a memorial, so where does that leave us?
I am sitting in Ahmad’s last incarnation, watching this film’s debut in the city where the heart came from. It is the cinema’s opening weekend, so of course it makes sense to screen the film, and besides it’s the only film they have the license to show right now. As I have already stated the film is not about Ahmad; he dies in the opening seconds and the directors do not dwell on this. As members of the press attending the cinema's opening weekend, we have been fed positivity and hope all day. No one is critical, no one is spelling the word “apocalypse” on the cinema's lintels. There are PA policemen encircling the building, snipers on roofs, cameras and film crews forming an inner ring, and the rest of the by-standers crowded in the middle, all herded from one event to the next. We are in a bubble. A bubble inside a greater bubble, all within a closed-off militarily occupied territory.
Julie looks at me at the end of the night after the screening of the film, this is fucked. She is my housemate in Ramallah. I dragged her up here to see this weekend unfold, we pretended that we were with the press and got access to everything. Exhausted from the heat and feelings of the day we crawl onto the roof of a hotel that overlooks the new cinema. We smoke cigarettes and enjoy the breeze in the dark, there is a weird German guy who won’t leave us alone. We become close friends after this.
A few weeks after the cinema’s opening event, a film maker from Ramallah and I decided return to Jenin to get the real story about this project. The following text follows the chronology of the day. We interviewed nine people, including Zakaria Zubeidi, one of the only surviving kids from Arna’s Children, now grown and after having been one of Israel’s most-wanted for years, was mysteriously given amnesty and was representing the Freedom Theatre. He had a dark green mark on his face, like a splash of ink, someone told me that this was because a bomb went off in his face when he was building it. We also interviewed Marcus Vetter, the project director and creator of Cinema Jenin. The relationship between the Freedom Theatre and the cinema was very important, as Marcus knew he needed the approval of the Freedom Theatre in order to enter Jenin’s world of cultural aid projects. Zakaria did not trust the cinema, that was very clear from his interview. In any case, on the surface at least, the theatre was seen to have supported Cinema Jenin. This text contains excerpts from five of the nine interviews conducted that day.
August 4th, 2010
It is midday on the first day of Ramadan, and it is hot. Jenin sits in a valley basin, holding all of its hot air down. There is no wind, there is no food, no water, and no cigarettes. There is just sun, a film crew from Ramallah, a brand new cinema, a city that hates it, and myself.
Underground we are smoking and drinking juice in secret. We are in a small basement office with the owner of a restaurant across the street from the cinema. The restaurant is a “sponsor” of the project, though not in a monetary sense: as far as I can see it is only in the sense that they have the poster of the cinema in their window. The owner is not just any restaurateur, he is also an artist. He tells us a bit about the history of the old cinema, that it had been functioning up until the first intifada, when it was destroyed by the resistance. This is somehow important. It was not the Israeli army which took away this cultural fixture, it was the members of resistance movement who felt that the cinema could not exist in the context of their struggle. The restaurateur had a plan many years ago to rebuild the cinema, which was lying in ruins next to his restaurant. He said he was never successful, nothing ever generated enough energy. Besides, the owner of the original building, he thought, was holding out until a foreign project came in, along with foreign money, of course. Which is exactly what happened.
After the cool basement we go to the university where we sit in an office with four fans blowing all at once. I was in charge of the sound quality of the interviews we were filming and decided ultimately that the quality of the sound wasn’t worth the intensity of the heat. Besides the man we interview looks like he won’t speak if I turn it off. He is less then enthusiastic about the cinema and tells us “They drove their tanks back to Tel Aviv and came back with cultural projects, it’s a new kind of occupation, a cultural occupation.”
I am now in Jamal Hwail’s house. Jamal now works for the PA, but he tells us he was a resistance fighter in his past life, meaning before 2005. His house is newly built up on a hill over looking the city, it is massive compared to anything I had seen in Palestine, impeccably clean, and almost empty. In his living room - where we are again offered secret cups of juice - there are pictures of him shaking hands with Arafat and pictures of him holding big guns, those relicts of past lives. He tells me that I am too young to have a memory of the second Intifada, if I were a bit older than I would know what Jenin is really known for… for the fighters, he explains. Jenin should be remembered for the fighters. Not for cinemas.
On the roof of his house we look down at the Jenin refugee camp. Jamal says he wanted to stay close to the camp and that is why he chose to build his house here. On the roof up the hill there is a little more air, a little more sun. He holds his newborn baby for us to film, the camp is in the background. He tells us, “even when we were fighting we were trying to achieve a better level; to reach our own peace. The philosophy of resistance is to do this.” I can’t help but think about the current insistence on this thing called “nonviolent resistance.” According to Jamal, the use of violence to achieve peace is not a contradiction, a logic that would have all the peace activists and NGOs cringing around its edges, or any foreign care body that comes into this space with ideas of a clean and somehow nondestructive, decolonizing process.
“You are placing the violence in the wrong place. What is violent is the killing of this boy.”
Maybe it has always been about the words. Words are so dangerous in this place. We all know that ‘he who names’ and yes it is always ‘he’, controls the territory. But this is not just about control and power. It is a very obvious problem that the control of the city-space is not in the hands of the city itself. The contention over this particular cinema is located in the choice of words and the one that everyone holds their breath for is peace.
We are speaking about a cinema that shows movies, which can transfer new images and messages to the community. But what about the message the cinema itself sends out? The one that is written on my press release form, handed out in the doorway written in English; that the body of Jenin is in a state of violence and the cinema can return it to a state of stability, of peace (ok my summary). But to where is this message being directed? It is being misdirected, Jamal states: “I wish he could send this message to Haifa, or to any city in Israel, to transform that society into peace. We already believe in peace here.” The danger is that this message flattens the resistance of this city, by saying that their resistance only brought destruction to Jenin, and therefore that they brought this terrible fate upon themselves. So resistance is not the answer anymore. And for Jamal, and many others we spoke with, to promote this message is unacceptable; it would be to accept the idea that this cinema, or any other self-proclaimed “peace” project, is the only alternative the situation as it now stands, and that only the outside can provide your salvation. That this the only hope for a better future.
But listening to the voices of Jenin, their message is even stronger.
You cannot save us. You cannot even change us. So what are you doing here?
So I will stick with the logic of the film for a moment, because after all it is about the heart of Jenin, and this is central to why the cinema is such a threatening presence in this space. In this way, whether or not the film means it to be, the city of Jenin is transformed into a body, maybe even a corpse, and the old cinema becomes an internal organ that again is removed from the corpse, this time almost stolen from it. Although the cinema is not so self-important as to claim to be the heart of the city, it may indeed represent some vital organ, or else the citizens (or owners) of this body would not feel its removal in this way. And then of course there is the reconstruction of this symbol by a foreign body, one that threatens the original. But in any case, and in any metaphor, its presence in this foreign form is felt very deeply, like prodding an open wound, where the memory of Ahmed lives along with every other martyr from Jenin. And yes, of course they are all martyrs within this bodily system. However, to be clear, I am not really speaking in metaphors, in this city of Jenin, a body with and without its organs. It is all to real to me, as I sit on plastic chairs in the heat of the late afternoon, witnessing the slow and non-metaphorical death of a complete city-life-system.
Driving away, our taxi driver said he thought that Ahmed’s father sold the organs to the Israelis. He says this casually, like it is less than gossip. Otherwise he doesn’t seem to mind the cinema. Why not have a cinema? It seems nice, especially for the children.
The Politics of Moving Hearts
Jamal’s interview is still stuck in my mind. I think of how moments of the past can surface again in a heartbeat - like how the shock of a crime, which moves the earth itself, is still felt in Jenin’s body. A cinema is not just a cinema here, it can never be just this - not with this kind of an aftershock. Jamal told us, “I felt there was an earthquake. What happened here was a war crime. We responded with honourable resistance. We weren’t terrorists, we were not illegal in our actions. So Marcus (the director) needs to know this. We are the people of Jenin. We have lived here for a long time and we know the message we want to send to the world better than someone who has lived here for a few months.”
When asked about The Heart of Jenin, Jamal says, “the film gives out a human message: you give us death and we give you life - this is a beautiful idea, not a political idea, and when someone attempts to lift the message into the political, it makes problems.” Maybe he means that the message cannot transcend the “human” because there was simply no political result from this moving heart, and how could there have been? “What did the Israelis give back to these families who lost their loved ones other than more killing of Ismael’s people?” I think about Ismael. There is no individual gain in what he did. They took one life, he gave five lives.
What does Peace mean to you?
Finally we catch the infamous Marcus in the cinema itself. The sun has finally gone down on the first day of Ramadan. We can eat and drink and smoke. Alhamduliah. It feels like the day is beginning again. The interview begins at half-past midnight. We keep speaking until two in the morning. I think of our friend in the basement of the restaurant earlier in the day and ask Marcus if he thought cinemas would happen anyway, eventually... He says yes, but does not see the point in the question - about why it is important in this context that a cinema was constructed now by a German initiative. Suddenly it occurs to me that a trust in “cultural pluralism” isn’t really a translatable condition. It is a western misconception, that leads many cultural interventions by NGOs into ruin. So I ask him whether or not it is important “to remain international” in these kinds of projects. Again the concept gets a bit lost - it is more about practicalities to Marcus. He tells us “the internationals are important because they bring the knowledge... there is a different cultural approach... a talent of the Palestinians is to be spontaneous; with mixed methods and structures.” I think this must be the pluralism I was thinking of, but he keeps going: “it makes friendships, real friendships, not political or ideological connections which are just a result of a political connection… beyond this there is something real.” But of course there is another important factor in this relationship – it is one of the most destructive and critical points in the mistrust between foreign projects and local actors - so I ask him: “What happens when a lot of money is involved?” In an unsatisfying manner he simply says, “there is a cake. The project has its limits. It’s an unsolvable situation...”
I ask: “What is your hidden agenda?”
He says: “The hidden agenda: Get back the dignity. To bring hope in the form of a cinema and create friendships and spread the word through the world, that Palestine, that the people here are full of potential... Until now there is not much hope. It is a desperate situation, there is a lot of humiliation, you are suppressed and people look down on you.”
Me: “Do you believe in hope? Do you have a belief in peace?”
He believes there is a way and he believes that he is a part of it, Marcus explains: “Israel can’t look down on Palestinians, they do have potential, if the money is there, and if the help is available to bring a dignity back to the people. This was one of the aims I had. To bring as much to the people as I could... for Jenin to break free of preconceptions, or rumours. To give people hope.”
The question I wanted to ask: What if the cinema were to be destroyed in a third Intifada?
It’s 4am and I am trying to sleep in an half-abandoned building with the all-male film crew (they laugh the next morning and say that this situation was probably a first in this city: one foreign girl, three Palestinian men, the first night of Ramadan, one room, etc, etc…)
I am thinking that each party uses the original cinema’s destruction toward different ends. For the new cinema, the destruction of the old solidifies an idea that resistance can only result in further destruction, and this path is not the solution. It was Jenin’s decision to destroy the old cinema in the first intifada, like there was no place for this kind of body in the new world that was being remade. Before its reconstruction, the ruins of the cinema were some of the few in Palestine that were actually made on their own terms. There was an obvious power in this moment, which lived on in these ruins, forming something close to what could be a hope in the future. Holding on to the idea that the world that was once destroyed could be remade, someday, by Jenin.
The film was eventually aired on PBS (American Public Broadcasting System). Reading through people's reactions to the documentary didn't bring any answers to the myriad complications in the director’s story. But the funniest question was this:
They can share organs but not land?
What is the difference? Why is it that the Palestinians have to give both away (land and organs), to both lose their children and save the children of their oppressor? One blogger even went as far as to say said that if everyone was like Ismael than the conflict would be solved.
I can’t help but think that this comment might reflect some sorry truth of the Palestinian condition. A condition that could lead a blogger somewhere to think that if all the Palestinian fathers lost their sons and gave the hearts away to Israelis, then everything would be better. A condition that leaves us with only a peace cinema and an act of kindness.
Random acts of extreme kindness and sacrifice should not become a solution, or the norm, to a conflict perpetuated by states, both by governments of far-away lands, and of the close-to-home. Jamal told us that “if all the people in this room gave their organs to Israelis, we would be heroes. What about George Washington, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela? Those people who led their country into freedom; they are heroes. We can only be heroes if we give our body parts away to the Israelis, but those of us who try and liberate our country are looked at from a different perspective.”
Are we allowed transcendence? Are we allowed heroism? Knowing that we are not allowed to fight. This may be the sad resting place of the Heart of Jenin. That only the dead can help now. But even not all the dead, not those who put up a fight before dying; the dead that no one can argue with. The Dead and innocent. Dead and passive. Dead and young. Dead and dispersed.