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.
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.”