Tuesday, February 27 2024

While our day-to-day life may not be characterized by desert, war and
danger, Marcus Vetter’s films speak to every man’s ability to be the
protagonists in forgiveness.

When documentary filmmaker Marcus Vetter followed his heart to the
declared warzone of Jenin, Palestine, 5 years ago, he didn’t expect it
to lead to a trilogy.That was because he had no idea of the silent acts
of heroism he would find there, tangled up in the fault lines of the
Israeli question.

The recently released final film, Cinema Jenin: The Story of a Dream, tells of the struggle
involved in re-opening what was once Palestine’s largest theater, a
bold effort that came as a response to one Palestinian father’s
decision to donate his son’s organs to save Israeli children.

“Peace” is a word that has come to make Vetter uncomfortable,
especially when used lightly, in Palestine. In a place where tanks and
armored vehicles have become roadside fixtures, and the recounting of
street raids and casualties make up mealtime conversation, he’s seen
how marginally the on-again, off-again international talks and various
humanitarian initiatives factor into daily life. The people who have
lived in these areas of limbo long enough for them to take on a sense
of permanence have grown understandably skeptical toward sweeping
ideals. Instead, says Vetter, “real development comes from small
gestures and friendships that are built over time…lots of time.”

Small, private, nearly instinctive actions, often made in the wake of
tragedy – these are the kind of stories Vetter has spent the majority
of the last five years of his career telling. He didn’t have any
special knowledge of the Palestinian/Israeli question in 2007, when a
European production company invited him to collaborate with Jewish
director Leon Geller for a documentary film in Jenin. In fact, most of
the journalists he spoke to advised strongly against it. “I’d known
people who had gotten lost in the compounded complexity of this
conflict,” he recalls, “and the general consensus was that one only
makes a film about Palestine if they want to end their career, and you
only go to Jenin if you’re willing to risk your life.” But, it was the
strength of the story, the strength of one Palestinian father, Ismael
Khatib, that brought him to the declared war zone in the northern West
Bank six months later.

In 2005, Ismael’s 11-year-old son, Ahmed, was playing “Arabs and Jews”
with two friends in the streets of the refugee camp, when an Israeli
soldier mistook his toy gun for a weapon, and shot him. In the hours
that followed, Ismael made the decision to donate Ahmed’s organs to
children awaiting transplants, saving the lives of four Israeli
children. Two years later, Vetter and his film crew traveled with
Ismael through Israel, meeting the children and the families that he
helped. The product of these encounters is The Heart of Jenin. Viewers of the film linger with Ismael in
the awkward silence that accompanies being welcomed into the Jewish
families’ homes. They feel the precarious contrast of the former
resistance fighter sitting on the sofa of an orthodox Jew, the same man
who, years earlier, while his daughter was in surgery, commented that
he’d rather she received a kidney from a Jew rather than an Arab.
Photos of Jewish clerics hang on the living-room wall behind him. But,
it is in these moments of mutual risk and vulnerability that the two
men become disarmed. They gradually begin to see each other’s common
humanity, how inextricably their histories and destinies intertwined.

“In documentary film, you cannot try to manage the story,” Vetter
reflects. “You have to purge the project of any pictures you have in
your mind, any script you are trying to follow, or else it becomes
nothing more than a reflection of your own prejudices—a propaganda
film.”

And, even if he had tried, there was no way he could have predicted
what would come from shining a light on Ismael’s journey. While some
claimed that the film whitewashed Palestinian society, The Heart of Jenin garnered international attention and placed
Jenin before the eyes of a wide public. It was nominated for nearly
every major documentary film festival, winning Cinema for Peace’s “Most
Valuable Documentary of the Year” award in 2009, and the 2010 German
Film Award for Best Documentary. But, that was just the beginning.

Cinema Jenin

After the film was completed, Marcus found himself unprepared to walk
away from Jenin. Looking at the buildings left abandoned since the 1987
Intifada, the idea came to him to re-open the theater that had once
been the largest in Palestine. It would offer youth, like Ahmed Khatib,
an alternative to street life, and open a window to the outside world.
He asked the people living in the Jenin refugee camp and city to
imagine what could happen if they committed themselves to creating a
place where they could come together and share something as real, as
provocative and as entertaining as a good film?

Hundreds of volunteers have since joined the people of Jenin in the
building of what will be Palestine’s first solar-powered, independently
run, and economically sustainable cultural center. Artists,
technicians, investors, and people from all around the world who simply
want to lend a hand now belong to the project “Cinema Jenin. Many of them have come to see with their own eyes this place
still considered one of the most dangerous on earth.

After the silence

It was after a showing of The Heart of Jenin in Haifa, Israel,
while the building project for “Cinema Jenin” was already
underway, that a Jewish woman approached Vetter with her story. Yael
Armanet had lost her husband in the string of Haifa suicide bombings in
April 2002, days before the entire Jenin refugee camp was demolished in
retaliation. As a Jewish architect and Palestinian peace
activist, Dov Chernobroda was eating in the Arab-Israeli owned Matza
Restaurant, when teenage Shadi Tobassi walked in and detonated the bomb
attached to his body. Ever since, Yael quivered at the very name of the
place. Now, she found herself asking if she could ever go to Jenin, as
her husband would have, and look into the eyes of the suicide bomber’s
mother.

What is to be done in the aftershock of destruction? What do the dead
leave behind for the living? These are the questions that Yael and the
film team she allowed to document her eventual visit to Jenin asked
themselves in the highly successful film After the Silence.

“The most important thing in making good films is trust,” Vetter says
today, referring to a concept that characterizes his projects on both
sides of the camera. In fact, Vetter himself was not a part of the film
team that recorded Yael’s response to The Heart of Jenin. He
left the project in the hands of two women (his former students), who
directed it, a camerawoman, and a soundman – none of whom had any
previous involvement with making a film.

Vetter’s final film, Cinema Jenin: The Story of a Dream, concludes a trilogy of stories that intersect in Jenin. It
reveals some of the complexities and difficulties that have come with
building common ground in a place still so characterized by extremes.
For the director who, in 2008, would never have imagined one man’s
story leading him into three documentary films and the foundation of an
international non-profit organization, his Jenin saga proves his basic
belief: “When you have a story that is strong, about a subject that is
real, you must open yourself to it and let it take you to what needs to
be told.”

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