x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A look at the history behind the only cinema in this West Bank City

Marcus Vetter talks about Cinema Jenin, the West Bank cinema he devoted himself to restoring.

Marcus Vetter in front of Cinema Jenin, which the documentary maker has spent years raising funds to help restore. Courtesy Fabian Zappatka
Marcus Vetter in front of Cinema Jenin, which the documentary maker has spent years raising funds to help restore. Courtesy Fabian Zappatka

Film festivals are almost always noisy affairs, but not normally because of military jets roaring overhead. But then, Jenin, in the north of the West Bank, is no normal city. And the festival that took place there last year wasn't an average array of celebrity-strewn red carpets, gala showcases and multi-screened megaplexes.

On a sunny day in August 2010, hundreds gathered on a dusty road just opposite the bus depot to celebrate the reopening of Cinema Jenin, its first and only picturehouse. And now, more than a year later, the remarkable story of this achievement can be witnessed thanks to the new documentary Cinema Jenin: The Story of a Dream, which receives its regional premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival today.

"The town was so happy that day," recalls Marcus Vetter, the German director behind both the documentary and the reopening of Cinema Jenin.

Vetter first came to Jenin in 2007 for an entirely different project. With a population of around 50,000, it is the third-largest city in the West Bank, located a mere 15 kilometres from the Israeli border and the infamous Barta'a checkpoint.

Jenin's proximity to its occupier has proved painfully costly over the past decade, with Israel blaming those in the city for launching the majority of suicide attacks during the Second Intifada. Much of it was reduced to rubble during the Israeli Defence Force's crushing Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the worst hit being its refugee camp, a permanent home for more than 10,000 Palestinians forced from their land during the 1948 Nakba.

It was during the Second Intifada, in 2005, that 12-year-old Ahmed Khatib was killed by an Israeli sniper while playing on the streets. In an incredible act of humanity, Khatib's family decided to donate their son's organs, and among the children whose lives were saved by this gesture was a little girl from an orthodox Jewish family.

On reading about this story, Vetter headed to the West Bank to film Heart of Jenin - an inspiring and emotional documentary following Ahmed's father Ismail as he visited the families of the recipient children. Heart of Jenin was eventually screened at the 2008 Dubai film festival, picking up the audience award.

But this wasn't the end of Vetter's involvement.

Although Palestine once had an active film community, it had been all but destroyed during the First Intifada. Indeed, Jenin's only movie theatre - which had been one of the biggest in the West Bank - shut its doors for the last time in 1987, its ability to amass local youths in one location considered too dangerous an opportunity for the Israeli army. Also, feelings were moving in more hardline directions, and there were worries that the cinema - which screened both Arab and western movies - might become a target for radical groups.

So the building across from Jenin's bus depot was left to ruin, a forgotten shell visited only by the thousands of pigeons who would flock through the broken windows and find sanctuary in the main theatre.

Vetter, noticing that Jenin didn't even have the facilities to screen his new film, decided it was this old movie theatre where he would next focus his attentions.

"Having done many films, it was now that I thought I should take responsibility and actually help change something," he says. Together with Fakhri Hamad, a Jenin resident who worked as a translator during the original filmmaking, and with Ismail's backing, Vetter got to work and Project Cinema Jenin began.

It's the story of this project, from inception to completion, that is told in the documentary Cinema Jenin. It begins with the huge challenge faced in acquiring the lease for the building, which involved tracking down the various co-owners, now scattered far and wide, to acquire the rights. Facing huge resistance, Hamad was forced to use the influence of a government minister to get them on side.

Another major, if not the biggest, issue was - and still is - funding. Despite their efforts, Vetter and Hamad struggled to source financing locally and, in the end, the first donation came from the German foreign ministry, one of several it has made.

With this influx of money, sound isolation experts, architects and cinema professionals were brought in, materials were acquired and work on the dilapidated building could finally get going.

But there were more problems to come, problems that might not have been obvious to newcomers. "There is an invisible border in Jenin," says Vetter. "There are people from the refugee camp and people from the city, and there is a big wall between them."

In a place that has been so badly affected by a brutal occupation, whispers spring up quickly whenever outsiders arrive, irrespective of intentions, and the project soon found itself the subject of such gossip. In one scene in the documentary that captures this well, Hamad appears in court, charged with disturbing the peace by his landlord for simply "putting up Germans" in his rented apartment.

But the project grew, and as the amount of international professionals and volunteers arriving in Jenin swelled, some form of dedicated accommodation was required. A four-storey building near the cinema was eventually leased, renovated and quickly transformed into the Cinema Jenin Guesthouse, a fully functioning hostel with dorm rooms, bathrooms and a kitchen. For Vetter, his wife and numerous other full-time international volunteers involved, this became home. The guesthouse now features in various guidebooks and the income is pumped back into the cinema.

While the slow reconstruction of the cinema building stuttered along with each new drip of funding, came plans to help establish some form of sustainable industry that could keep it going. Vetter set up workshops and following the donation of equipment, amateur directors were invited to come to Jenin and learn the art of filmmaking.

An incredible result of this is After the Silence, a documentary that sees an Israeli widow visit the family of the suicide bomber who killed her husband. By some beautiful act of coincidence, the film - which is the first bearing the "Cinema Jenin Production" label - is also screening at this year's Dubai film festival.

"It was always my dream to start a tiny film industry there," says Vetter, who admits that such a dream will take far longer to realise than he first hoped. "It could start with subtitling. We've got the technical equipment there to do it, and once people have the skills they could subtitle films for the Arabic market. It would be easy to build up this little department."

But reopening the cinema itself was always the first and most important dream. And after two years of work, US$1 million (Dh3.67m) of investment, donations including a sound system from Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, and countless hours of volunteer time, right up to the last minute, Cinema Jenin was able to open its freshly cleaned doors for the first time in 23 years on August 5 last year, kick-starting a three-day festival.

In attendance at the ceremony were Bianca Jagger and the Palestinian National Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad, who cut the ribbon to the building as the masses - including more than 100 journalists and numerous heavily armed Palestinian special police forces - thronged outside and Israeli F-16 jets made regular inquisitive sorties overhead.

That evening Heart of Jenin was screened to several hundred visitors in the cinema's renovated back garden. This ambitious project had - against immeasurable odds - been completed.

But a year on and despite the achievements, Cinema Jenin is still facing huge difficulties. Just a month after reopening, it was forced to close its doors again, laden with debts and unable to front the costs of remaining operational. Thankfully, it is now back open again, and its debts will soon be cleared thanks to another investment from Germany. However, it still suffers from a chronic shortage of funding, with just two volunteers currently working there.

Cinema Jenin was - appropriately - the intended host for the world premiere of the documentary narrating its story. However, in April of this year tragedy struck the city when Juliano Mer-Khamis - an inspirational actor, director and activist who established the Freedom Theatre in Jenin's refugee camp and encouraged its youths to engage in peaceful, creative resistance - was assassinated by masked gunmen.

Mer-Khamis features prominently in the Cinema Jenin documentary, and it was following his murder that Vetter sped up his plans to leave Jenin and handed over the running of the cinema to Dr Lamei Assir, one of the original co-owners.

"We wanted people to see that we were building up the cinema for the people of Jenin, not ourselves," says Vetter, who is now back in Germany but speaks to Assir weekly. "I just put the idea out there, but it's the other people who should represent Cinema Jenin. It is the city of Jenin which has to decide which direction to take and how it should be structured."

After three years of devoting almost his entire life, not to mention his own finances, to Jenin, Vetter is now returning to his previous love, filmmaking, with two projects in the pipeline, neither connected to the cinema. "It's important for me to have a break, but Cinema Jenin will always be a part of me."

Cinema Jenin: The Story of a Dream is playing today at 5.30pm and tomorrow at 2.45pm, Mall of the Emirates, Screen 7