x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Screen savers

Feature Decades of hardship have made a night at the movies a non-starter for people in the Palestinian city of Jenin. Now, a cinema restoration project is likely to see film fans return after 20 years and breathe new life into the West Bank city.

The Cinema Jenin project has attracted donations from all over the world.
The Cinema Jenin project has attracted donations from all over the world.

Decades of hardship have made a night at the movies a non-starter for people in the Palestinian city of Jenin. Now, a cinema restoration project is likely to see film fans return after 20 years and breathe new life into the West Bank city. By Rachel Shabi "It's a really tense time," says Fakhri Hamad, one of Cinema Jenin's managers, as he looks at the frenzy of activity around him. "There is so much left to do and anything could go wrong."

An unlikely-looking ensemble of several dozen Palestinian and German workers is bustling around this large, bare building in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, installing electrics, panelling walls and surfacing parts of the stage. Members of the crew regularly converge in impromptu meetings to survey the tasks in hand. And if the white-hot pace of work is not sufficient evidence of an imminent deadline, a flip chart in the main theatre space shows a "to do" list beneath a countdown in bold indicating the few days remaining until the grand opening.

Cinema Jenin is about to welcome the public for the first time in 20 years. It is hard to imagine, standing amid the workers and the "to do" lists, buton August 5, the venue should be filled with expectant crowds. Some of them will have fond memories of the original cinema from their youth, while others will be watching a big-screen movie for the first time. The expectant audience will see the result of a two-year scheme run by a German filmmaker, in association with two Palestinian colleagues in Jenin - a project that will see an old, dilapidated cinema brought back to life. And the subtext of this cinematic endeavour is clear: by restoring the picture-house, the hope is to breathe new life into the beleaguered city, which has suffered decades of hardship under the Israeli occupation.

"When we first saw the building, it was occupied by tens of thousands of pigeons," says Hamad. The neglected cinema had become a dumping ground, its fixtures were in a ruinous condition, the screen was torn and the chairs in a state of decay. "We cleaned all the pigeon excrement from the building ourselves, at a time when there were just a few people involved in the project. And we wondered what we'd got ourselves into."

The project really started after Ahmed Khatib, a Palestinian boy, pictured right, was shot dead by the Israeli army during a raid on Jenin in 2005. The army claimed it had mistaken his toy gun for a real one. He was 12 years old. It was a tragically unexceptional death at a time when Israeli assaults on the Palestinian West Bank were at a peak, and Jenin suffered routine raids, curfews and "targeted" killings.

But then, Ahmed's parents decided to donate his organs to other children, all of them Israeli - and some of them Jewish. This act of humanity, born of the most horrible grief, generated headline news across the world. At the time, Ahmed's mother Abla Khatib, said: "To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance. Violence against violence is worthless. Maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between just and unjust. Maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot."

Marcus Vetter, a German filmmaker, heard those words and went on to make an award-winning documentary, Heart Of Jenin, which chronicles the story of Ahmed, the children to whom his organs gave new life and the relationships that developed - or, in some cases, did not - between those children and Ahmed's parents. "I was in Israel working on the film," recalls Vetter. "But I wanted to go to Jenin to continue the work. Everyone told me I'd be crazy to go, that it was very dangerous, that I'd get killed, or kidnapped at least." Vetter ignored the warnings and went anyway. "I realised that something was wrong with this picture of Jenin. I wanted to change that perception."

The cinema project is, he says, an attempt to confront the negative stereotypes of Jenin - dubbed the "terror capital" by Israel during the height of the second Palestinian intifada, which began in 2000. During that period, a deadly escalation in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, it was reported that a quarter of Palestinian suicide bombers attacking Israel came from Jenin. "Everything I thought I knew about Jenin was wrong, upside down," says Vetter. "The world always looks down on this place and on the Palestinian people, but this project shows that there is so much potential here, that if you have the vision you can really build things here."

Ahmed's father Ismail Khatib, who runs a children's centre for peace in Jenin named after his son, is also one of the initiators of the project to restore the city's cinema. From modest beginnings - the idea was just to recreate a small, family-friendly cinema - the project spearheaded by these three men soon snowballed, attracting funds, support and donations in kind from all over the world. It has received funding from both the German government and the Palestinian Authority, while donations have ranged from a local tile company providing roofing materials at cost price, to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd hearing of the project and donating a state-of-the-art sound system. It has developed into a venue that will run on solar power and use three projection styles, including 3D. The cinema will accommodate an audience of around 400 - who will be seated on the original, albeit reupholstered chairs, and enjoy some of the cinema's original fittings. A tranquil garden, café and children's area run alongside a large movie screen for outdoor projections, which should attract crowds of double the indoor capacity.

The cinema has scope to make and screen film adverts for local businesses, which will, it is hoped, subsidise the tickets to keep prices down. Fakri Hamad says that the community has welcomed this venture - an open day explaining the cinema plans drew hundreds of interested people, mostly women. Among the younger population, there is much excitement at the prospect of a cinema in town. "Of course I'll go!" says 19-year-old Masar Amr, a law student at Jenin's Arab-American university. "I want to see films with [Egyptian comedian and actor] Ahmed Helmy and new films, any films. I love action movies, anything with Jean Claude Van Damme."

Her friend, multi-media student Maysa Kelana, explains that neither of them has been to see a movie at a cinema before. "We watch films all the time at home, on the TV or on computer, but it will be great to have a proper venue, a cinema." The older population has fond memories of the original Cinema Jenin, built in the 1960s and deemed one of the most impressive in Palestine. "There used to be two screenings, one in the morning and one in the evening," recalls Hussam Abu al-Rub, a father of four and resident of Jenin. "During the holidays, like Ramadan, they'd show films all day. My friends and I used to love going when we were about 17 or 18. We'd watch Indian films, karate films with Bruce Lee... they'd also show religious films like Risala. In the evening it was like a demonstration on the streets, because so many people would be coming out of the screenings."

"It was forbidden for them to show us anything political, so it was mostly entertainment," says Ziyad Fracini [check name spelling], 46, a Jenin municipality worker. During the early decades of the Israeli occupation, which began in 1967, all artwork of "political significance" was banned in the Palestinian territories. "I used to love watching the Indian films it would screen. I still like watching them now, but at home."

However there are other memories too, of the cinema turning into a disreputable place where under-age boys would gather to smoke - and watch the pornographic films for which the venue later became notorious. "Cinema Jenin was competing with another local cinema," says Fracini. "It began to splice regular films with pornographic material to attract the crowds. That's why it was always packed full of men and young boys, while the other cinema in town was empty."

Locals say that such screenings were also the reason the cinema was closed down during the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987. The venue was considered improper. It's a reputation that still lingers around the idea of a cinema in Jenin. One 68-year-old businessman, who did not want to be named, says: "I am a very devout Muslim and all films are haram." Others say they will think twice before taking their children to the new cinema. "I wouldn't take them, even if the cinema was showing Islamic films," says Fracini, while another local resident, 58-year-old Abdullah, says: "I don't think that the cinema will improve us as a society, it will just teach us bad habits."

But the team at Cinema Jenin has been careful to address such concerns by setting up a committee, comprising the city's mufti and members of the municipality, to help decide which films should be screened. "We are still a conservative society, so we will be careful," says Fakri Hamad. "We promise to show good films. That can mean comic films too, but ones with a message, a meaning. We aren't just going to show films for entertainment."

As well as Heart Of Jenin, the opening night will also screen the Egyptian film, Hassan And Marcus, starring Omar Sharif, which explores how friendships can form across hostile religious divides. Most of all, the project's managers stress the wider potential of the soon-to-open Cinema Jenin. "The community here gave us a big push and made us realise that this is not just a place to watch films," says Hamad. "It is a place of peaceful resistance against the Israeli occupation, a place where we can fight the Israeli media's distortions of us and promote our Palestinian reality. I don't want to fight with guns. I want to fight with my culture."

Iain Akerman, 38, is a magazine editor and father from Dubai who spent a week working as a volunteer on the Cinema Jenin project. "Cinema Jenin was nothing more than an empty shell when I arrived at its padlocked doors in July last year. There were holes in the roof, birds' nests in the eaves and neglect had left the walls pockmarked and bare. The screen had long since been taken down and up in the projectionist's room, a dusty old projector sat unloved, its reels of film scattered across the floor. The only clues that the cinema was about to be brought back to life consisted of a stack of breeze blocks and the odd bag of cement, which were placed outside the derelict venue opposite the town's main bus station. Fifty metres up the road, however, work was in full swing. A crumbling old villa on the corner of Azzaytoon Street was being renovated and turned into a guesthouse as part of the project and it was there that I spent the best part of a week. For someone unused to the strains of physical labour, lugging marble tiles, unloading trucks, clearing debris, mixing cement, painting, sawing, digging and working like a mule were a harsh reminder of the ineffectiveness of my gym regime. The heat, which hovered around 35°C at its peak, made the work tougher, while dust thrown up by the renovation covered me in filth by nightfall. I learnt of the project through Zyara, a Dubai-based initiative which combines sightseeing with volunteering in the West Bank. The group organises one or two trips to the Palestinian Territories every year. There were about 15 of us from Dubai, mostly British expatriates and Palestinians. We crossed the border from Jordan into the West Bank and, as I had Lebanese, Iranian and Yemeni stamps in my passport, I was detained with four of the Palestinians for about five hours. Finally, we were allowed in. We worked eight-hour days in stifling heat with no air conditioning. Fakhri Hamad, the project manager - on whose apartment floor I slept for five nights - would encourage us all to achieve more, and each night we talked into the small hours as the fan in his living room worked overtime. It was during the evenings at Fakhri's apartment, the guesthouse or at a restaurant that life in Jenin would slide into focus, often through the simplest of things, such as a snippet of conversation or a song. You see images of Jenin on TV depicting it as a hotbed of insurgency, violence and suicide bombers, but I wanted to see it for myself rather than via the media. One afternoon, on a break, we walked along Jenin's roads, past an imposing statue of a large metal horse and into the town's refugee camp. It was at the camp's Freedom Theatre that the Palestinian story of dispossession emerged first hand. The production, Fragments of Palestine, featured no dialogue, just an intense sense of injustice. Zyara's ethos is simply that "you will see with your own eyes" and that is a succinct way to describe the motivation behind working and travelling across the Occupied Territories. It is for those for whom reading, hearing and watching are not enough; there is no substitute for experience. After a week's work, we visited places such as Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Beit Jala. When we packed to go, Fakhri had tears in his eyes. The days we had spent unloading lorries, digging and painting seemed a small contribution but as I boarded a bus to Ramallah, I firmly believed every effort counted, no matter how small." As told to Tahira Yaqoob