Movie review - Heart of Jenin

- by Alexander Jones - 

Each week we take a look at a different film dealing with Israeli and/or Palestinian issues. This week we examine The Heart of Jenin, a documentary by German director Marcus Vetter and Israeli-American Lior Geller. It was originally released with the German title, Das Herz von Jenin, in 2008 and made waves in the international film festival circuit where it won 8 awards.

The story revolves around Ahmed Khatib, a Palestinian boy who was playing outside in his hometown Jenin on Eid al-Fitr (the annual celebration of the end of Ramadan) in 2005, when he was shot by Israeli soldiers. He had a toy gun which was apparently realistic enough to convince the IDF troops that the 12 year old was a threat, and he dies in a Haifa hospital 2 days later. His mourning father, Ismael, carries the film with his intelligent, caring and often piercing dialogue. He agrees to donate Ahmed's organs and almost as if by design - either Holy or cinematographic - the recipients end up being a Bedouin, a Druze and an ultra-Orthodox Jew (two others declined to feature in the film, while a third child tragically did not survive the transplant surgery).

Each of the families present their own respective story of how their lives are effected by both their children's illnesses, and the political situation in which they live. Everyday scenes of the children playing, or of the frequent disruptions caused by the Occupation, reveal insights to the different worlds. Samah Gadban, the Druze girl who receives one of Ahmed's kidneys, is a particularly vivacious little girl which audiences will naturally warm to. The father of Bedouin Mohammad, who received the other kidney, is also shown in a kind light. In one memorable scene he appreciates the irony of being an electrician who himself lives without electricity, in an unrecognised village in the Negev desert. The Jewish father Yakov Levinson, however, does not come off so well.

He tells the audience he would of course prefer that the organs saving his daughter's life came from a Jew, and is reluctant to meet the Khatib family. The most cringe-worthy moment comes when he suggests that if Ismael struggles for work in Jenin, he should try in Turkey or London. There are moments when the directors show scenes of Jewish family life which begin to humanise them, but documentary stereotypes about the suffering Palestinians and the arrogant Jews are heavily reinforced. Of course, a director cannot make someone say something on camera, so Levinson can only blame himself for how he comes across and despite living in an illegal settlement in East Jerusalem, this detail is not revealed to the audience. The film includes elements such as a heart felt interview with the Doctor who first treated Ahmed, and audio from the commanding soldier the day Ahmed was shot which describes the incident from his point of view. Although elements such as these add a good layer of complexity, the story at times descends into 'goodies and baddies'.

Ultimately however, the stage belongs to Ismael. His powerful dialogue drives the narrative of the film. Even at a moment of such extreme trauma, he calmly makes it clear that his act is one of humanity, not of politics. For him the background of the children he saves makes no difference. All the while, he manages to nevertheless resist the status quo of the Occupation. He asks the viewer rhetorically whether they think that the Israeli establishment would be happy with what he has done. He says that kindness and humanity is his answer to the brutality he faces every day and he is proud to surprise with kindness where retaliation might have been expected. His other son says he prefers to resist by playing music than by turning to violence. It is in these moments of peaceful resistance that audiences will most connect with the Khatibs and despite some flaws, Heart of Jenin certainly allows viewers to do just that.

You can visit some of the unrecognised Bedouin villages like the ones shown in the film on our weekly Bedouin reality tour, and of course you can explore Jenin itself with us every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, on our Nablus, Jenin and Sebastiya tour.


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