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The Heart of Jenin Stops Beating

“We must always be prepared to rethink our attitude to war.”

Director Statement

by Marcus Vetter

When I heard the news about the horrific events from Israel on October 7, I was on my way to the USA for the last day of filming a movie about the International Criminal Court that I am currently shooting for ARTE. The horrific act brought back old memories that my subconscious has buried in its depths for good reasons. The scene I had in mind first and foremost took place on April 4, 2011 in the West Bank in Jenin. I was in the library of Cinema Jenin, a movie theater I had been renovating there for the past three years and had also made a film about it, CINEMA JENIN – THE STORY OF A DREAM.

Jenin was known for the fact that a third of all Palestinian suicide bombers came from this town. That day I was supposed to meet Juliano Mer Khamis, the director of the Freedom Theater in the refugee camp. I had traveled to Jenin one last time to ask him if he would like to run our well-equipped cinema. We had an appointment for the afternoon. On that day, however, the Palestinian Minister of Culture had arrived to discuss a missing transfer of 50,000 dollars, which was due to us from an approved grant but never reached our account.

CINEMA JENIN opened in the summer of 2010 and has been showing films ever since. However, finances were strained as many people in Jenin were afraid to visit the cinema because it was seen as a “normalization project” by certain Palestinian resistance groups. In their opinion, there could be no projects in Palestine that were not explicitly committed to the Palestinian resistance as long as Israel was the occupying power. Juliano’s Freedom Theater was a project dedicated to peaceful resistance through art and theater. It was founded in the mid-1980s by Juliano’s mother Arna, a Jewish peace activist, and continued by her son after her death. It was under the protection of Zakaria Zbeidi, the head of the Al Aksa Brigades, who was once Israel’s most wanted terrorist and laid down his arms in a general amnesty in 2008. However, none of the young people portrayed in Juliano’s documentary ARNAS CHILDREN about his mother’s work are still alive today, apart from one. Two young people blew themselves up as suicide bombers in Israel, the others were killed in militant resistance. The only one who survived was Zakaria Zbeidi. I had already interviewed him for an earlier film that I shot in Jenin in the summer of 2007. I had previously contacted Juliano and told him about my film about a Palestinian father, Ismael Khatib, whose eight-year-old son Ahmed was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Jenin in 2005 and who decided to donate his son’s organs to Israeli children. I had a queasy feeling about shooting the movie HEART OF JENIN in Jenin. My Israeli producer expressly warned me not to travel to this city. But when I got Juliano on the phone, he just laughed and said: “Jenin is safer than Berlin”. He organized an interview with Zakaria Zbeidi, who received us at the Freedom Theater and handed his submachine gun to one of his companions before positioning himself on the stage for the interview. A situation that has stayed with me to this day. His face was marked by countless small scars inflicted by a warhead that accidentally exploded in his face.

The last time I saw Zakaria Zbeidi in person was in September 2010, a few weeks after the opening of Cinema Jenin. The cinema project had just facilitated a trip to Jenin by an Israeli woman – Yael Armanet – who had lost her husband in a suicide bombing in Haifa and was visiting the suicide bomber’s family in Jenin as a gesture of reconciliation. I had met Yael at a film screening and asked volunteers from the Cinema Jenin project if they would make a film about Yael’s journey together with a Palestinian director. The result was the touching film AFTER SILENCE, which is also so special because it was politically supported by the Palestinian employees of Cinema Jenin, even though the film tells the story of an Israeli Jewish woman who stands up for reconciliation, something that, as far as I know, has not yet been done in Palestine. However, Zakaria Zbeidi spoke out against the film at the last moment and expressed his anger in an interview. He addressed his words directly to Yael. “My mother was killed by a sniper. Do you know what a sniper is? Do you want me to kill all your mothers too? What are you doing here in Jenin, Yael? Why don’t you go to the bulldozer drivers who are destroying our olive groves and erecting border fences in their place? Talk to them instead of coming to us”. His words were bitter and highlighted deep-seated wounds. Unfortunately, AFTER SILENCE could never be shown in Jenin. Shortly after the cinema opened, things changed dramatically. The interview I shot with Zakaria Zbeidi in the middle of the night took place the day before I left. It ended with him getting the manager of Cinema Jenin, my friend Fakhri Hamad, out of bed at night and threatening him with a loaded gun in front of me, before taking us back to the Cinema Jenin guest house at dawn. It was a warning that I took seriously. Hours later, I left Jenin knowing that I would not return.

Except for that April 4, 2010, when I was supposed to meet Juliano to give him the cinema, but left him a message that I would be late because we were being held up by the minister. Even though Juliano and I had different opinions about the political orientation of the cinema, I admired him as a theater maker, actor, director and street worker. He lived for the theater. Unlike Freedom Theater, however, CINEMA JENIN was not meant to be a resistance project, or at least not in the sense of Juliano. The idea was born out of Ismael’s gesture of reconciliation and we wanted to stay true to it. Perhaps it was a naïve idea, but I still see it today as an important alternative to the extreme polarization we have seen in the Israel/Palestine conflict in recent years. I could understand Juliano’s attitude when he admonished me that any project in Jenin must address the Israeli occupation. But above all, I saw the people, the countless children who had already suffered their whole lives under this state of war. In every war, innocent people die and hatred begets more hatred. Ismael Khatib sowed hope with his gesture of peace, which has now been destroyed for decades with the events in Israel. Through the filming, I experienced the humiliation at the checkpoints that Ismael, or all the cab drivers who took us from Jenin to Tel Aviv, had to endure every time. When I showed the rough cut of THE HEART OF JENIN at the Freedom Theater in 2008, we sat with Ismael Khatib and his translator at the time, Fakhri Hamad, for a long time afterwards in a café in Jenin and talked about ways to bring peace and how to protect children like Ismael’s son Ahmed, who was shot by an Israeli soldier with a toy gun in his hand, from the cruel collateral damage of war. On this summer evening in Jenin, the idea of the cinema was born, to revive the old Bauhaus cinema in Jenin and offer children and young people an alternative to the street.

A deep friendship later developed between Fakhri and me. I admired his courage in bringing the idea of cinema to his people. Unlike in Ramallah, it was possible to speak Hebrew in Jenin. I found the people in Jenin to be more open and less extreme than in the Palestinian capital Ramallah. Unfortunately, the cinema could not be accepted by the people of Jenin, as otherwise they would have been caught between the Palestinian Authority, which supported the cinema, and the resistance groups, who saw it more as a “normalization project”. In order for the cinema to survive, I wanted to put it in the hands of Juliano.

With these ambivalent thoughts, I was listening to the Arabic of the Minister of Culture when Ismael’s cell phone rang and his face turned white. A few minutes earlier, Juliano Mer Khamis had been shot by several bullets in broad daylight, in front of his theater, his 1-year-old son on his lap. The news spread like wildfire around the world. Only a short time later, it also reached my editor Saskia Metten, who was editing a scene at that very moment in which Juliano makes a passionate plea for Palestine. In the end, his assassin was a Palestinian. The reasons for the crime will always remain a mystery. For me, the still image of this scene is like a symbol of the demise of a dream that has now been shattered once again on October 7.



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But on my flight to L.A., I see these events in a different light. The gestures of peace by Israelis and Palestinians are captured for posterity in my three films. No one can go back in time to change this history. And I am sure that there will be a time, perhaps sooner than most people think possible, when these efforts for reconciliation and peace will be remembered, revived and renewed. Months later, I read that Zakaria was involved in a gun battle with the governor of Jenin, who gave a speech to all the volunteers at the opening of Cinema Jenin, assuring them that Jenin was open to all religions and cultures, and who died of a heart attack as a result of the gun battle. Zakaria was caught and taken to a Palestinian prison. It was never proven that he had anything to do with the governor’s death. He was later transferred to an Israeli high-security prison. On September 9, 2021, Zakaria Zbeidi escaped with other Palestinians through a tunnel, but was recaptured shortly afterwards.

A violent jolt suddenly jolts me out of my daydream about the memories of my time in Jenin that I thought had been buried, caused by turbulence on my flight to Los Angeles, where I have an appointment that evening with Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. I had met him in February 2009 in Berlin at the Cinema for Peace Gala, where the film THE HEART OF JENIN received an award and we presented the CINEMA JENIN project. Ocampo was fascinated by our work in Jenin and invited me to The Hague to discuss the possibility of making a documentary about the International Criminal Court. After the Gaza war in 2008, a Palestinian delegation had approached him, asking the ICC to investigate possible Israeli war crimes during Operation “Cast Lead”, as the Israeli army (IDF) dubbed the 2009 operation against Gaza. However, as Palestine was never recognized as a state and therefore could not become a member state of the ICC, the Gaza war did not fall under its jurisdiction. Ocampo referred the case to the United Nations, which granted Palestine observer state status in 2012. Three years later, Palestine ratified the ICC and became an official member state. Since then, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity committed on Palestinian soil can be prosecuted by the ICC, regardless of which side commits them. The unimaginably cruel images that I saw on social media shortly before I left are running through my mind again. A young Israeli woman covered in blood being dragged into a van by her hair, people running through the desert with their faces contorted in fear, followed by men in combat fatigues shouting Aloha Akbar. Palestinian war crimes can also be prosecuted by the ICC since 2015.

Ocampo handed over his office as Chief Prosecutor to Gambian Fatou Bensouda in 2012. In 2021, Karim Khan was sworn in as the current Chief Prosecutor. Since he had the arrest warrant issued against Vladimir Putin for possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine, all eyes have been on him. Co-directed with Michele Gentile, a film enthusiast and volunteer for the Cinema Jenin project, we began filming the ICC at the end of 2009, which is now coming to a close in Los Angeles, chronicling the tenure of three chief prosecutors. In the final hearing of his first case against warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Luis Moreno Ocampo invited the youngest prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, Ben Ferencz, who, at 92 years of age, gave an impressive closing statement in the Lubanga case. He emphasized the right of every human being not to be exposed to wars with all their atrocities. “Revenge leads to revenge, violence leads to more violence.” Throughout his life, Ben Ferencz campaigned for war itself to be classified as the greatest war crime. Because every war entails the worst atrocities and innocent civilians end up paying the price. On the day I am writing these thoughts, the Israeli army has been waging a bloody war against Hamas for 4 months now. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced that this war would be waged in such a way that Hamas and all its allies would remember it for generations to come. In Jenin, an eight-year-old boy was shot dead by an Israeli soldier. History is repeating itself and another heart of Jenin has stopped beating.

Despite the ongoing suffering, hope dies last, and I conclude the three films with the release of WAR AND JUSTICE.

THE HEART OF JENIN – CINEMA JENIN, THE STORY OF A DREAM – AFTER THE SILENCE once again in a trilogy. These are three films about people who have tried to break the vicious circle of violence and hatred. Luis Moreno Ocampo and Ben Ferencz were guided by the same concern when they campaigned in Rome in 1998 for the International Criminal Court as a global court to make wars superfluous in the future with the help of impartial justice and to hold every head of state who orders or allows war crimes to be committed personally accountable. As imperfect as this court may be, it is the only global court recognized by 121 countries that seeks to bring justice to the victims of war and thus opposes the principle of revenge and retribution.

For however plausible and compelling the arguments may be for a society or a community of states to opt for war as a last resort, we must always be aware that in doing so we risk laying the future of generations in ruins. We must therefore always be prepared to rethink our attitude to war. The four films and the personal struggles of their protagonists show encouraging paths to peace.

For as Mahmoud Darwish, the literary voice of Palestine, said: “We suffer from an incurable disease: hope”

What is the way forward when for the first time in the modern nuclear age, every major war is fought under the dark cloud of global escalation?


„War and Justice“ is a true-life documentary about Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and Benjamin Ferencz the youngest prosecuting attorney of the Nuremberg Trials. They both are of the firm opinion that war itself is the biggest war crime of all.

But with tragic events in Israel Palestine that could easily lead to a mayor confrontation in the middle east, and the three largest world powers — China, Russia and the United States — still unwilling to accept the International Criminal Court in The Hague, will genocide, war crimes, and wars of aggression ever be brought to justice?

Sadly, just as the film is about to debut, Ferencz dies at the age of 103. But Ocampo fights on in his honor, more determined than ever to put an end all to wars of aggression, along with the inevitable human atrocities they cause.

About the film


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Organize a screening yourself and contribute to the distribution costs with one euro per viewer or more. The films are available in English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic language version. Buy now all three films for 300€ (up to 100 viewers) and download Flyer, wallpapers and press fotos in our download section. If your screening is hosting more than 100 viewers we are happy to receive an additional voluntary donation.

Organize a private screening yourself for the world-wide release of The Trilogy odf Hope or WAR AND JUSTICE. Please contact info@filmperspektive.de

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