/ 9 January 2011

Cinema Jenin: A creative space beyond the grind of occupation

The red carpet had seen better days. Faded, threadbare and dotted with stains and cigarette burns, it would not have graced a Hollywood ­premiere.

But this was Jenin, one of the most troubled cities in the West Bank in recent decades and a long way from Tinseltown. And, for once, there was something to celebrate.

The occasion was last year’s opening of Cinema Jenin, an ambitious project to provide a centre of culture and entertainment in a place more accustomed to the farewell videos of suicide bombers than the latest action movie or romcom.

For two years a team of local Palestinians and international volunteers has laboured to build a new cinema from the dilapidated shell of the old movie house, which shut its doors 23 years ago during the first intifada.

Now its smart minimalist interior has more than 300 original cinema seats, restored by local craftsmen. A state-of-the-art sound system has been donated by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. Its new roof, electrical system, 3D projection system, film school, digital library, open-air screen and café were paid for, in part, by the German government. And the new ­cinema runs on solar power.

The $1-million restoration was largely driven by the German filmmaker Marcus Vetter, whose award-winning documentary, Heart of Jenin, marked the opening of a three-day film festival.

Vetter’s film tells the story of Ahmed Khatib, a 12-year-old Jenin boy shot dead in 2005 by Israeli soldiers who mistook his toy gun for a real weapon. The boy’s parents decided to donate his organs to Muslim and Jewish children.

His mother, Abla Khatib, said at the time: “To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance. Violence against violence is worthless … maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot.”

Inspired by the story, Vetter went to Jenin to make his film, but realised there was nowhere in the city it could be screened. He saw the cinema’s restoration as a way of challenging the negative image of Jenin, as well as bringing a creative space to a city in which the daily grind of living under occupation had virtually erased ­cultural activity.

Ismael Khatib, Ahmed’s father, an enthusiastic backer of the project, was at the opening. “Cinema Jenin provides a safe place where Ahmed’s friends can learn and have fun,” he said.

Samah Gadban, a 17-year-old from Al Beqaha in Israel who received Ahmed’s heart, was on the red carpet to show, she said, “her strong connection” with Jenin.
“It’s a token of appreciation from our family to come here to the heart of Jenin to celebrate the opening of the cinema,” her mother said.

Much of the city was reduced to rubble in a sustained Israeli military incursion in 2002, in which 53 Palestinians and more than 20 Israeli soldiers were killed. The IDF was intent on rooting out militants, who provided almost half of all Palestinian suicide bombers in the second intifada, from Jenin’s labyrinthine refugee camp.

The old cinema had closed long before, partly because of disapproval among residents for its pornographic movie screenings. Conscious of this history, Vetter pledged to “choose the right films for this audience”. Acknowledging that the cinema restoration had not won universal support in the socially conservative city, the management said it was also planning family and women-only screenings.

Awad Shaker (30), a Jenin taxi driver, who had never been inside a cinema, said he would go as long as the films were “good” rather than “bad”, meaning morally acceptable. “Foreign movies are morally not good,” he said. But his hopes focused on a possible boost to business. “If the cinema generates more work for us, this is good,” he said.

Iman Yasen (22) was looking forward to seeing her first film in a Palestinian cinema, hoping for action, romance and horror.

The human rights activist Bianca Jagger, who attended the cinema’s launch, said the project represented hope for the Palestinians. “It’s a pleasure to see the people of Jenin having access to culture, to have what the rest of us outside Palestine have.” — Guardian News & Media 2010