Journalists, film-makers and people from the media education establishment in Britain and Ireland were reminded at the 13th Cleraun Media Conference in Dublin in mid-October (19th-21st) that journalists in their work should never “lose sight of the primary importance of people – their value and their dignity”. The advice came from Ms. Kate Shanahan of the Dublin Institute of Technology’s journalism school. Ms. Shanahan is a former producer with Irish television who began her career in print journalism with one of Ireland’s national newspapers.
Ms. Shanahan’s words of advice were exemplified in the work of German film-maker Marcus Vetter whose award-winning documentary, Das Herz von Jenin – The Heart of Jenin – was shown at the conference. The film was introduced by Marcus Vetter himself and was followed by an in depth discussion on the history of its making and the events it recorded.
The Heart of Jenin is a film set against the background of one of the world’s most protracted and bitter human and political tragedies – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. The film shows how a group of people embroiled in this conflict were able to rise above it by virtue of the exercise of a single but enormously powerful act of human generosity.
It tells the story of how Ismael Khatib, a Palestinian father of a young boy fatally injured by an Israeli bullet during an incursion of the military into the West Bank town of Jenin, decides to donate the organs of Ahmed, his dying son, to enable several other children to live. Seven young people were the beneficiaries of this act, some Arabs, others Jewish. Of these seven, five have survived and are now living normal lives in their own communities.
The climax of the story comes when two years after his heroic act, Ishmael visits some of the families and the children to whom his son’s organs have given new life. One visit in particular, the most difficult of all, stands out both as an example of the triumph of humanity over hatred and prejudice and as a symbol of the peace and reconciliation which people dream of for the Middle East.
One of the beneficiaries of Ishmael and Ahmed’s donation was the little daughter of David Levinson, an American-born orthodox Jew. In the early part of the film we see David – in news footage from the time – waiting in the hospital as the word has come that a donor has been found whose heart might be suitable for his daughter. David is asked some questions about his view should the donor turn out to be an Arab. This, he expresses quite clearly, would not be what he would want.
The story then moves on two years and we know that David’s little daughter is alive and well and living a normal life. David knows that the person who has given his daughter and family this great gift is a Palestinian Arab, someone whom he has up until that time considered his mortal enemy. He is now about to meet him in his own home and the camera of Marcus Vetter is there to record the meeting.
There is no doubt but that the encounter begins with tension. David is awkward. Ishmael is also awkward. David then expresses his regret at his insensitive remarks of two years earlier. There is an uneasy but real reconciliation. Then David calls in the little girl and she walks over to Ishmael, he holds out his hand and she playfully hits it. Then there is a gentle embrace and with this the whole atmosphere of the meeting seems to change. Further conversation takes place, David eventually gives a parting gift to Ishmael and says what a pity it is that they had not met before. They part, expressing a hope that they will meet again.
The message of the encounter is understated. Nevertheless it is loud and clear for all to see and hear. The whole is a wonderfully moving document in witness to the power and effect of simple human goodness and generosity.
Nor does the story end there. It is still unfolding. In the aftermath of these events, the Ahmed Khatib Centre For Peace was established for the children of Jenin. Ishmael now devotes his time working in this centre with the children of this war-torn and impoverished city. Neither did the film-maker’s story end there. In the relative peace of the region, prior to the outbreak of the two intifadas of the past 20 years, Jenin was a city in love with Cinema. It had a multitude of picture houses scattered through its narrow streets. The violence brought an end to that and when Marcus Vetter went there to film Heart of Jenin there was not one left standing. He and his friends decided that the people of the city should not only have an opportunity to see their account of this inspiring story but see much else besides. They have now founded the Cinema Jenin Project, rebuilding one of the town’s old cinemas and establishing around it a film-school. Young film-makers and students of film in Europe are now involving themselves in the project to help the young inhabitants of Jenin to learn more about the art of film-making – and in the process, perhaps, let their art also be a means of promoting peace, human dignity and respect for life.