Cinema Jenin brings movies and revival to a scarred West Bank city

Ahmed Khatib, 11, was killed in Jenin in 2005.
Ahmed Khatib, 11, was killed in Jenin in 2005. (Ho - AP)
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By Joel Greenberg
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

JENIN, WEST BANK -- For years this dusty city in the northern West Bank was a hotbed of Palestinian militancy, with gunmen roaming the streets, suicide bombers dispatched to Israel and lethal Israeli army raids leaving swaths of destruction.

Now, the renovation and reopening of a movie theater closed for 23 years is being celebrated as a harbinger of change and cultural revival. It is the latest symbol of the transformation of this city, where Palestinian security forces are firmly in control and the local economy is improving after the easing of Israeli-imposed travel restrictions.

Cinema Jenin, one of the largest movie houses in the West Bank, opened in 1957 and operated until the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, when it was shut down along with theaters in other Palestinian cities. It had featured Egyptian, Indian and martial-arts films, but the days of deadly struggle with Israel were not deemed a proper time for public entertainment.

The building fell into disrepair, its wooden seats decayed, the screen was torn, and the premises filled with garbage. Then an improbable chain of events, which began with the killing of a local boy by Israeli troops in 2005, led to the theater's revival.

The child, 11-year-old Ahmed Khatib, was playing outside with a toy gun when he was shot by Israeli soldiers firing at Palestinian militants in the streets. The Israeli army said at the time that the boy was mistaken for a militant. The boy's father, Ismail Khatib, agreed at an Israeli hospital to donate his son's organs, and they were given to six Israeli recipients.

The father's act, which bridged a bloody divide, inspired Marcus Vetter, a German filmmaker, to create a documentary about the events, called "Heart of Jenin." In 2007, while on a visit to the city, Vetter discovered that there was no local movie theater. Strolling past the shuttered cinema with Ismail Khatib, Vetter proposed renovating and reopening it, and the two men began working to make that happen.

Khatib, who started a children's arts center in the Jenin refugee camp after the death of his son, said reopening the cinema, where a film school is planned, could help change the lives of local youngsters, who grew up surrounded by deadly conflict. "This is a way to take the children off the streets and give them a safe place where they can be like other children, learn filmmaking and live in better conditions than my son Ahmed did," Khatib said.

For Vetter, the renovation project, carried out with local workers and foreign volunteers, is a means of restoring a sense of worth and purpose to the young people of Jenin, whose main preoccupation for years was confronting Israeli soldiers.

"Rebuilding the cinema gives them another vision, something they can be proud of, a feeling that they built all this themselves," Vetter said.

Hundreds of people packed the theater and an outdoor viewing area last week during three days of opening festivities, which included films and musical performances. In a city starved for public leisure space, the cinema complex offers an outdoor cafe and performance area, and it includes a film library, dubbing studio and guesthouse.

But not everyone in Jenin is happy with the cinema, whose renovation was funded mostly by donations from the German foreign ministry, the Palestinian Authority and Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd.

"This is going to destroy the youth, morally and socially," said Fayez Ibrahim, a bearded man who was reading a book about Muslim prayer in his plastics shop. "When it's time for afternoon prayer, people will go to the cinema instead."

But the project has been backed by the Hamas-controlled municipality, which provided a bulldozer for earth-moving work and free electricity. "This will contribute to the city commercially, culturally and recreationally," said acting Mayor Ali Shadi, who recalled that he watched films in the movie house as a boy.

To avert controversy about the kinds of movies that will be shown, a public committee, including the mufti of Jenin, the highest-ranking Muslim cleric in the city, has been formed to review selections that might be problematic, said Fakhri Hamad, the cinema project manager. He said audience surveys will be conducted to gauge public viewing preferences.

Hamad said the presence of foreign volunteers has already changed attitudes in Jenin, isolated for years behind Israeli army roadblocks as violent conflict raged. Israeli Arab visitors, allowed through checkpoints in an effort to boost Jenin's economy, filled a popular restaurant on a Saturday afternoon and shopped at local markets in the run-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

And at the ticket window at Cinema Jenin, teenagers who grew up without a theater in town gathered for a novel experience: watching a movie on the big screen.

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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