Al-Ahram Weekly – 26 December 2002
The documentary Jenin, Jenin opens with the wild gesticulations of a young mute man charging around the now-famous lunar landscape of the Palestinian refugee camp. Seemingly dragging the camera by the force of his will alone, he points in passing at bullet holes in walls, at the rubble of demolished houses, at the air from which helicopters once rained down missiles. An incomprehensible mumble subtitles everything he remembers. Intermittently he clutches at his chest and makes as if to fall down dead, then quickly regains his footing and heads down a new alleyway to begin afresh. Later in this 55-minute film, his energy and recollections spent, he points an imaginary gun to the centre of his forehead and pulls the trigger.
Incomprehension, desperation and fear are the thread running through the stories of a dozen or so of the camp’s 14,000 inhabitants who recount the Israeli army’s invasion of the camp in April. None can quite find words to make sense of the eight days of destruction inflicted by tanks, Apache helicopters and 80- ton bulldozers better than the physical theatre of the young man.
The director Mohammed Bakri says his documentary, filmed only days after the Israeli army left the camp, is a warning to Israelis that the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the Palestinian people is being brutally subverted.
The destruction of Jenin camp, and similar Israeli rampages through other parts of the West Bank and Gaza, is producing a new generation with only hatred in its hearts, he says, making the chance of finding a peaceful solution increasingly hopeless.
It is a message falling on deaf ears, however. This month the Israeli board of censors banned Jenin, Jenin the first film to fall foul of the country’s censorship laws for nearly 15 years. Previous bans have been imposed on the grounds of decency rather than for political reasons.
A spokeswoman for the board, Sonya David- Elmalea, said the film was banned because it falsely depicts fictional events as truth. The movie is “propaganda that represents a biased view of the group with whom Israel finds itself at war”, she said.
It is difficult, however, to see what propaganda value the board thinks it has detected in the film. The documentary’s main purpose is to give to the camp’s inhabitants the face and voice they were stripped of after the United Nations backed down — under US and Israeli pressure — on pursuing an investigation into a series of war crimes the inhabitants, and human rights groups, claim were committed by the army in April.
The spinelessness of the international community in challenging Israel’s version of events in Jenin is a running complaint by the camp’s inhabitants, including an uncomfortably hilarious scene in which a market seller picks up a sandal from his stall to ring Kofi Annan. He pleads with the UN secretary-general to come to the camp, promising that the Palestinians will have a whip round to buy a secondhand plane to bring him over. If they can’t raise enough money, he says, maybe they can afford a limping donkey. Before he receives Annan’s reply the battery on his sandal-mobile phone runs out.
The damage being inflicted on the Palestinians’ sense of justice and of their own visibility as moral beings — reflected in the ever-lengthening queues of those willing to turn suicide bombers– has long been overlooked in the political manoeuvring of the international community. Jenin’s inhabitants are not afraid to voice their sense of grievance and betrayal at the world’s silence over the destruction of their homes and their lives.
Bakri’s camera runs along fields on the outskirts of Jenin filled with rows of tents, each with “UN” and a number written on the side. It is an image which intentionally echoes photographs from 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made homeless by the terror campaign of the newly created Israeli state.
This time doctors, fighters, old men and pregnant women are allowed to tell their stories without editorial interference — even, as in the case of a childless man who says huge sums of money he had saved for fertility treatment were stolen by soldiers, when elements of the account seem improbable.
The point is not to judge these people, or the veracity of their claims, but to see the damage done to their souls.
For this reason the film rarely dwells on reconstructing events. No evidence is presented of Israeli war crimes apart from brief snatches of video footage taken by an amateur cameraman during the invasion. The 54 deaths in the camp are not discussed. An execution-style killing of a captured resistance leader, Abu-Jandal, is told only through the emotional testimony of a relative and a cynical doctor who witnessed him being shot, twice in the head, as he was seated on a pile of rubble.
Bakri, one of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, says he nearly called his film “Love and Disappointment”. “I could really identify with what Jenin was experiencing. During Oslo, all Palestinians, those in the West Bank and Gaza and those inside Israel, had a sense that the Israelis truly wanted peace. That we could all live together happily. Now there is a huge sense of betrayal.
“Under all the anger the people of Jenin feel hurt and are vulnerable,” he said.
“They want to live in peace but Sharon has snatched all hope away from them.”
Many of the film’s interviewees break down into floods of weeping during their recollection of the eight days of bombardment they endured. Some have straightforward tales, like an old man who proffers his bandaged hand saying he was shot when he emerged from his house after hearing army loudspeakers telling people to leave the area. He fell to the ground in shock, he says, only to be shot again, this time in the foot, by a soldier angry at his inability to get up. The camera pans down to his bandaged foot.
But for others the tears are more restrained. An eloquent fighter talks of only ever having known Israelis as the masters of his fate, whether they were locking him up in prison, checking his identity at checkpoints, patrolling the streets of his town in tanks, or destroying his home with bulldozers.
Only when he speaks of seeing young comrades dying in his arms does the sense of his own powerlessness overwhelm him too.
But Israel’s censors may have found 12-year-old Najwa, the youngest of Bakri’s interviewees, the hardest of the film’s protagonists to take. This proud and embittered girl was discovered by Bakri at the camp’s cemetery as she visited the grave of a cousin who had been killed in fighting days earlier. During the interview, she expresses a savage loathing of the Israeli soldiers and the destruction they unleashed. She never once seems close to tears. Fixing the director with a cold, steady stare, she says “I’m not afraid of these cowards”.
Asked by Bakri if she thinks she can defeat Sharon, she answers impassively: “Yes I can, why not?” Bakri tries again: “He’s stronger than you?” to which she replies: “I am stronger than him, thanks to my will.”
Later, talking of Israeli Jews, she says: “I will never make peace with them. It is true that I am a good person, but Jews are hateful. They invaded us. We are defending our land. If they captured your son, wouldn’t you do anything to get him back? So we feel the same for our land. Our land means everything to us.
“As we say, our women still exist. We’ll keep on having children and they will become stronger and braver than ever.”
Bakri says he was shaken by the meeting and that the venom in her words leaves most viewers disturbed. Friends even warned him to cut her from the film entirely.
“She taught me something,” he says. “She taught me to protect at all costs the child in my own heart and in my children’s hearts. Najwa is clever, strong and unbowed — she is a leader — but she has no child left within her.”
The question now for Bakri is how to make sure the film is seen, and not only in private screenings like the one he gave me at his home in the Galilean village of Ban’a.
Israel has banned Jenin, Jenin from being shown in his own country. And there has been little enthusiasm for showing it abroad. He says the French-German TV channel Arte has expressed interest but only if 12 minutes are cut.
The danger if the film fails to find an audience, says Bakri, is that Jenin’s inhabitants will continue without a voice — and stripped of their humanity.
But like an image in the film of ants slowly and silently rebuilding their nest, Bakri says he was impressed by the unshakeable determination shown by all the camp’s inhabitants to carry on with their lives and stand their ground.
“I force myself to be an optimist: I have to believe in people. And I believe that only the Israelis and Palestinians can sort out this problem. One day Israel will return to Jenin and apologise to the residents for what it has done.”