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To Die In Jerusalem

Dir. Hilla Medalia (Priddy Brothers) - 4 stars

Director Hilla Medalia’s first feature documentary, “To Die in Jerusalem,” contributes to the ongoing dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis by capturing the political and emotional reality of the Middle East peace process: People discuss, but they do not really listen to each other. Since a true solution has yet to be found, the film is an achievement, simply for exploring the significant roadblocks on the path to peace.

The film outwardly focuses on a suicide bombing that took place in Kiryat HaYovel, Israel in 2002. One September morning, an 18-year-old Palestinian girl, Ayat al-Akhras blew herself up in a market, taking the life of a 17-year-old Jerusalemite, Rachel Levy. The similarities between the girls were eerie. Their appearances were so alike that after the bombing, body parts could not be easily matched to their owners; both girls were excellent students; both were normal teenagers. But one chose to end her life early.

Rachel’s mother, Avigail Levy, asks the logical question: “Why?” The resulting dialogue between al-Akhras’ parents and Levy leads to larger questions about international communication.

On the most basic level, “To Die in Jerusalem” is educational. The film breaks down the stereotype of the older, male suicide bomber. It also highlights the overlooked fact that some bombers kill on their own initiative—a prominent figure notes that the bombing was Ayat’s own decision, and not the result of recruitment done by Hamas.

Furthermore, it gives viewers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the families of suicide bombers and their victims. Levy’s mother receives advice from her support network in Israel: Some time before she talks with her Palestinian counterparts, Avigail discusses the meeting with a group of victims’ families in her home. Meanwhile, the al-Akhrases address the complex ramifications of Ayat’s actions: They cannot say that what their daughter did is completely wrong—to do so would be to say she died in vain.

The documentary’s strength lies in its implicit presentation of obstacles to peace, represented on a micro level through the mothers’ conversation. Medalia captures the sense of helplessness between them well. She edits the conversation so that it expresses the full range of emotions associated with suicide bombing, and, on a larger scale, the peace process—hope, tension, anger, fear, and frustration.

The film is unique for ending on a sad note: a dead end. The four-hour conversation, key clips of which are shown in the film, is best summarized by Levy herself, who, in exasperation, remarks that no one understood anything. At the same time, this silence seeks to encourage dialogue. By making a cul-de-sac the climax of the film, Medallia emphasizes both sides’ need to address each other’s concerns. She implies that, because the mothers at least tried to reach a conclusion, effort and hope are essential to discussion.

Some viewers may feel that the film portrays an overly sympathetic view of Palestinians. But the dialogue itself—not favoritism—is what deserves the viewers’ consideration.

Removing politics from such an emotional event as suicide bombing is difficult, and talking without listening is prevalent in discussions about peace in the Middle East. Politicians need to understand the problems in communication to improve the reality—and for that reason alone, “To Die in Jerusalem” should be shown to a larger audience than it will probably reach.

—Staff writer Alina Voronov can be reached at avoronov@fas.harvard.edu.
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