Star Ledger 1 January 2003
Israel bans film about battle at refugee camp
Censorship board calls ‘Jenin, Jenin’ propaganda
Sunday, December 29, 2002
BY JOSHUA MITNICK
For the Star-Ledger
TEL AVIV — A feeling of helplessness led director Mohammad Bakri to leave his family and job in Israel to sneak into a war-ravaged Palestinian refugee camp last April to make a film.
For three weeks, he had listened to reports of the fighting and devastation in Jenin during an Israeli offensive throughout the West Bank. Desperate to help stop the cycle of violence, Bakiri, an actor and theater director, decided that showing an Israeli audience the Palestinian view of the siege held out the only hope for change.
“Israelis hear only the Israelis. They should understand the other side,” said Bakri, 49. “I hoped that the movie would influence people to elect a different leadership.”
A week after Israel’s army withdrew from Jenin, Bakri set out from his home in northern Israel for a perilous two-week stay in the West Bank. The result was “Jenin, Jenin,” a 53-minute film about one of the most controversial episodes in the two-year Palestinian uprising.
But Bakri’s work may have been for naught. The Israeli film censorship board, which normally concerns itself with pornography, voted to ban the film from public cinemas, saying the film was liable to hurt public sensitivities during wartime.
The ruling, which marks the first political case of film censorship here in decades, will be appealed to the Supreme Court next week. Many think it is almost certain to become a landmark case testing limits of free expression in a society rocked by two years of daily violence.
Set against scenes of grieving Palestinians wandering in a daze through the concrete ruins of their homes, most of “Jenin, Jenin” is spent listening to stories of the fighting from a handful of the town’s 13,000 residents.
The film shows a grizzled old man tremble in tears as he recalls being shot in the arm and leg by an Israeli soldier and a pretty Palestinian school girl discuss with cold determination taking revenge on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The film also attempts to visualize allegations of summary killings based on rumors that spread among residents of the camp. Bakri spliced together video footage shot during the offensive in which an Israeli tank appears to trample a group of Palestinian prisoners. Bakri said there was no proof that incident ever took place, but that he was trying to demonstrate what an Israeli tank symbolized to Palestinians.
Outraged members of Israel’s film censorship council ruled that “Jenin, Jenin” amounts to a “one-sided propaganda film” that cooked up a falsified portrayal of the fighting under the pretension of being a documentary.
“No democracy in the world would allow such an atrocious propaganda film against itself,” said Yechiel Guttman, the deputy chairman of the panel. “They wouldn’t make a hero of bin Laden in the U.S. It’s a propaganda film in the style of the Nazis.”
The neophyte film director couldn’t have chosen a more charged subject. Clashing accounts of the battle of the Jenin refugee camp turned it into bone of contention for both sides almost immediately after Israel’s army retook West Bank cities in response to a string of bombings in March.
Israelis considered the loss of 13 infantrymen a sacrifice for preserving the lives of innocent Palestinians who would have been killed if the military had bombed the camp from the air. For Palestinians who immediately coined it a “massacre” of hundreds of innocent civilians, Jenin became another symbol of resistance to Israel’s overwhelming force.
Human rights groups, who later confirmed that only about 50 Palestinians had died, criticized Israel for war crimes.
Private screenings of “Jenin, Jenin” at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques several weeks ago drew hundreds of viewers, while families of soldiers who died in the fighting protested outside.
Bakri said he set out to make a film that protests war and violence, while making the case for an end to Israel’s 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. What the movie doesn’t attempt to do is provide a documentary account of the offensive in Jenin, Bakri said.
“I was searching for the humane side of people’s dreams, people’s hunger and people’s disappointments. I was not looking for numbers, who is right, or why this happened,” Bakri said. “For me, it’s a prayer to stop this hell we are living in.”
Few in Israel can remember the last time the 14-member panel has kept a movie out of cinemas because of politics. Ten years ago, the film panel tried to ban “The Last Temptation of Christ” out of deference to the country’s Christians. The movie was ultimately screened following intervention by the Supreme Court.
The board dates from 1927, a remnant of British rule, and originally had power to censor theater. In the early 1990s, Israel’s parliament took away the council’s power to review theatrical productions, but stopped short of movies. Civil liberties advocates said the panel should be disbanded after staining Israel’s democracy.
“The phenomenon of criticism and the censorship of films for ideological reasons is an unparalleled scandal,” said Shulamit Aloni, a former member of Israel’s parliament. “They’re returning us to the dark ages.”
The banning of “Jenin, Jenin” has already begun to boomerang on the council. Since the decision, Bakri has received numerous calls of support from fellow Israelis and from abroad. He said that he’s planning to travel to Chicago in April for a screening.
“The movie is directed without any guiding concept, and it is made up of a collection of styles which give it the feel of a very initial and indecisive cinematic work,” wrote Uri Klein, the movie critic of the daily newspaper Ha’aretz.
“Opposition to the ban is necessary despite the fact that ‘Jenin, Jenin’ isn’t a good film. The danger is that the ban … will wrap the film in an exaltation that will blur this fact and turn ‘Jenin, Jenin’ into a much more important film than it really is cinematically.”
Bakri is still hopeful that Israelis, his originally intended target audience, will get a chance to see the film.