Cinema Jenin is an enlightening documentary account of a tightrope evasion of political, cultural and economic obstacles to resurrect a decrepit Palestinian cinema. The former Jenin West Bank cultural centre isn’t just a symbol of cinema, but the arts of a nation who has been without the privilege for over twenty years. Prior to the project there had been no functioning cinemas in Jenin since 1987, following First Intifada closure. A German journalist and documentarian fronts a passionate team who collectively envision its return to former glory. Navigating the divisive politically charged interests of a nation still in turmoil with it’s neighbour, Marcus’s dream is a dangerous but endearing one. This illuminating study of an important international aid project is powerful viewing, a tribute to the inspiring and healing magic of art and culture, and sought insurance that the arts are an integral part of universal societies.
Marcus Vetter was in Jenin in 2008 after filming for his documentary Heart of Jenin, the story of Ahmed Khatib, a Palestinian boy shot by Israeli soldiers whose father decides to donate his son's organs to Israeli children as a gesture of peace, when he learned about the abandoned cinema. Driven to resurrect, restore and reopen the iconic centre of Palestinian cultural life, he enlists a program director, begins to communicate with the cinema owners, and seeks funding learning some lessons on Palestinian customs along the way.
The footage he earns is raw, unfiltered coverage of tenuously sensitive meetings which provide insight into a divided nation uncertain of change and the extent that this proposition threatens the country’s politics, establishing that the passionate few who fought for this dream were on their own.
The building and cinema owners were tentative to endorse because they desired immediate economic benefit – a return to their past business – and initially rejected the notion that the site would be open for a period as a non-profit venue to collectively house encouraged artistic expression and cultivate interest in the arts. Marcus learns that in Palestine art is a risky investment, especially when he can give no guarantee that there would be future monetary return. German funding could not come through until the proper contracts were drawn up and agreed to, and even the promised Palestinian government funding had to be personally chased up.
Horrifically, one of the project’s vocal advisors on how to gauge the project’s divisive reception, an Israeli actor, Julio Mer Khamis, was assassinated during the editing progress of the film in 2011, and the final footage of him captured in the film is during a heated discussion about the team’s safety. Peace between the people of Palestine and Israel was proposed to make this cinema welcoming for everyone, but Marcus had to be careful in ensuring that his project remained a social interest and not political, a fine line he is advised not to encroach.
Here in Australia we take a lot for granted, certainly. The access we have to international artistic expression is extraordinary. It is sad to see that some countries in the world don’t even have the opportunity to experience other people’s stories portrayed on screen. Cinema houses have been abandoned and left to become dilapidated. The story behind Cinema Jenin is a provocative one, and the people involved in both its past and in creating its future are fascinating.
Cinema Jenin is well put together and is an important and thought-provoking documentary spotlight on the suppression of culture in response to politics and violent uprising, and how an outsider with a dream sought to make a difference.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Cinema Jenin is screening as part of the Audi Festival of German Films.