The challenging and complex issue of "rapprochement in the Middle East" has been the subject of countless books, films and works of art. Now, prize-winning German director Marcus Vetter has entered the fray. His documentary film Das Herz von Jenin (The Heart of Jenin) makes a unique contribution to the ongoing treatment of this theme. Rasha Khayat saw the film
The documentary The Heart of Jenin won the Cinema for Peace Award in the category "Best documentary" in February 2009 and the audience award at the International Film Festival in Dubai |
In 2005, Ahmad Khatib was hit by bullets fired by Israeli soldiers in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. He was 12 years old at the time. The soldiers had mistaken his toy gun for a real one and opened fire on the Palestinian child. A few hours after the attack, Ahmad succumbed to serious wounds to the head and chest.
Doctors at the Rambam hospital in Haifa confronted his father with a difficult decision. Although his own son had not survived, by donating Ahmad‘s organs, Ismail Khatib could save the lives of several children.
The decision to donate the organs of a recently deceased child would be an agonising one to make for any parent. But in Ismail Khatib‘s case, the question had an added dimension. The children earmarked to receive Ahmad‘s organs were all Israeli citizens.
"The children are not to blame"
To the doctors‘ surprise, Khatib promised to give the suggestion some thought. Staff at the hospital told him he had 12 hours to do so. Khatib consulted his elder brother, obtained the blessing of the Imam of Jenin and sought the permission of Zakaria Zubeidi, head of the militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs‘ Brigades and secular authority at the Jenin refugee camp. Once everyone had agreed to the transplant, Ismail Khatib gave doctors permission to remove his son‘s heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.
Across the divide: Ismael Khatib visits Menuha Levinson and her family in their home |
Not everyone approved of the plan. Some neighbours and acquaintances criticised him for surrendering his son‘s organs to the enemy, as they put it. "Children are not my enemy, they are not to blame!" was Khatib‘s almost phlegmatic response.
In his film, director Marcus Vetter reconstructed the events of November 2005 and documented Ismail Khatib‘s journey to meet the children whose lives were saved by his son‘s organs three years later. The film shows three out of a total of five meetings – two of the organ recipients want to remain anonymous.
In addition to the Druze girl Sameh Gadban and the Bedouin boy Mohammed Kabua from Negev, the organ recipients also include Menuha Levinson, the young daughter of an ultra-orthodox Jewish family. During the course of the film, shortly before the Levinsons receive the news that a kidney donor for their daughter has been found, the little girl‘s father lets slip a remark for which he later apologises – he says he would rather the organ came from a Jewish child.
The Levinson visit is less cordial than the other meetings, and all those present appear noticeably ill at ease.
It is at this point that one could accuse Marcus Vetter‘s film of being one-dimensional and biased. The oppressive encounter with the Levinsons, who are the epitome of sceptical, ultra-conservative Jews, is staged as the destiny-loaded final scene of The Heart of Jenin. Ismail Khatib is portrayed as a martyr who repeatedly points out just how surprised and irritated the Israelis were by his actions. "It confounded them more than if I had been a terrorist," he said.
Cinema Jenin: in the wake of the documentary project, an initiative was launched to rebuild what was once the biggest cinema in the West Bank |
It is not mentioned that it was an Israeli military helicopter that transported little Ahmad from the camp clinic in Jenin to Haifa, and a hospital with the means to potentially save the child‘s life. Or that it is actually not at all rare for Palestinian children to be saved by organ donations from Jewish patients.
The Heart of Jenin may be one-sided or overstated in parts, but it is nevertheless moving to see the hope and tenderness in Ismail‘s eyes when he beholds the children whose lives have been saved. "I see Ahmad in them," he says. "In all of them." With their film, Vetter and Khatib have sent out a signal that rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians does not have to be an unattainable dream. It is a film that sends out a message of hope.
Important reconstruction work
Although the cameras have long ceased to roll, Vetter and Khatib still have plenty of work to do. Their film was screened at various festivals last year and received a number of accolades. Khatib, who previously worked as a car mechanic, now devotes all of his time to the children and young people of Jenin. With the help of donations, he has founded a youth centre and is pursuing another venture with Marcus Vetter.
Marcus Vetter with the Palestinian children working on the "Cinema Jenin" project |
The "Cinema Jenin" project enjoys the backing of the German Foreign Office, the Goethe Institute and several film production companies, and aims to bring what used to be the largest cinema in the West Bank back to life.
The cinema, which seats up to 300 people, had to be shut down after the start of the intifada in 1987. It had been completely destroyed, but it is now being rebuilt with the help of young people from the region. The plan is to see it reopen in late 2009 with a film festival. "We at last want to bring young people here closer to culture and give them a pastime that does not have anything to do with hatred and violence," say Vetter and Khatib.