Originally Published by Ma’an News Agency on March 11, 2015.
JERUSALEM (Ma’an) — The short documentary “Khelil Helwa (Hebron is Beautiful)” follows a young boy from Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood as he goes about his daily life, uncovering the matrix of Israeli military control that defines every aspect of life in the occupied West Bank.
For Palestinians, the footage may at first appear somewhat unremarkable, and the scenes of soldiers barking orders and even arresting the film’s 15-year-old star, Awni Abu Shamsiya, are heart-breakingly familiar.
But for Israeli-American filmmaker Yuval Orr, it was the hope of showing the footage to Israeli audiences that motivated production.
“I want Israelis to see more films that challenge what they think they know, or challenge the moral stance that is very easy to take at a distance,” he told Ma’an during an interview in West Jerusalem.
“How many Jewish Israelis really go to Hebron if they’re not soldiers or settlers?”
‘Quiet before the storm’
The film, which was produced as part of the ActiveVision film collective, spans a mere nine-and-a-half minutes but manages to offer a complex and insightful look at daily life in central Hebron through the eyes of one of the city’s own children.
“Khelil Helwa” is surprisingly unburdened by statistics, maps, or figures, allowing the potential viewer — particularly if Israeli — to sympathize with Awni’s perspective regardless of their political perspective.
And while Orr concedes that this approach risks depoliticizing the inherently political nature of the struggle facing young Palestinians like Awni, he argues that it also opens up other opportunities for outreach.
“All of the words that we use to describe the ‘conflict,’ the ‘occupation,’ or the ‘situation’ are extraordinarily flawed, and as hard as you try to remain objective with language, its very difficult,” he told Ma’an.
He said he did not want to “color viewers’ perspectives and allow them to shut down, or be primed for a film they are going to identify with.” Instead, by allowing the viewer to experience Awni’s life directly and without introduction, he said the the film forces them to confront the humanity they share with the teen.
These concerns also motivated Orr’s decisions on which scenes to include in the film. He told Ma’an that he hesitated at times about whether to depict moments of violence that occurred on camera or to instead focus on the many daily struggles and humiliations that characterize the life of young people in central Hebron.
“It was important for me to have those moments of relative calm where you see the soldiers twirling their whistles at the checkpoint or yawning, because so much of life in Hebron is that. It’s these moments of intense quiet before the storm, and then shit gets crazy.”
“In moments of violence it’s very easy to draw the lines, but it’s more difficult in moments of quiet, where you feel the weight of what it’s like to live there. It becomes very difficult to deny the humanity of this kid,” he told Ma’an. “It’s a struggle to walk that line.”
Hebron is ‘extraordinarily uncomfortable’
Although Orr grew up in the United States, he studied Arabic for years in Egypt and Morocco and speaks Hebrew as well. Part of his family traces their roots in Jerusalem back more than 400 years, and he told Ma’an that he comes from a line of rabbis originally from Morocco and Spain.
He admitted that the family’s roots in Palestine are so deep that his grandmother even occasionally admits to considering herself Palestinian, if he “catches her on the right day,” he said, laughing. For Orr, working on the film was part of his own journey back to Israel to confront his relationship to the occupation and the realities of Zionism.
He told Ma’an that he was drawn to Hebron because of the uniquely difficult situation there.The process of making the film itself was also full of difficulties and strange experiences, he said, as filming was frequently blocked by Israeli soldiers who forced him to turn off the camera or demanded to know what he was doing.
Once while following Awni’s journey to school, meanwhile, a Palestinian police officer stopped the filming, concerned about a man following a child with a video camera in an area where Jewish settlers frequently stalk and harass locals.
“There’s something about being in Hebron that’s extraordinarily uncomfortable,” he told Ma’an. “I wanted to personally to face that down, and to force other people to face that down as well.”
“Hebron is the worst of the worst, and the kids who grow up in that environment are the most underprivileged, the most oppressed by the system, the ones who feel the occupation on a daily basis the hardest,” he added.
‘A little spark of hope’
Indeed, Hebron is distinguished from other areas in the West Bank by the existence of Jewish settlements inside the city itself. Israeli authorities have shut down hundreds of Palestinian shops in the last few decades and paved the way for the flight of thousands in order to ensure the security of the few hundred Israeli settlers who have taken over parts of the Old City.
One scene in the film tackles one of the most pressing issues facing the area, the system of mass incarceration deployed against local teens by soldiers as punishment for even the most minor offenses.
Awni is seen standing on a street in the neighborhood when stopped by soldiers, who accuse him of having harassed a group of male settlers in their 20s who were walking by. The soldiers then grab him and forcibly take him away, in what was the third such arrest in his life.
Orr told Ma’an that since he finished filming, Awni has been arrested yet again. Unlike previous times, when he was put away for a few days and then released after his family paid a large fine, this time, Orr said, he is being charged with throwing stones at a checkpoint. Under a new Israeli law, for Palestinians the charge of throwing stones can mean years of hard jail time.
“It’s a terrible situation and a terrible reality,” Orr told Ma’an. “The film shows exactly how harsh it is to live under occupation, but not even, because there are so many things that will happen to him in a day, in a week, in a month, or in a year that are not in the film. He’ll tell me about a 2 am house raid (by Israeli soldiers), but I’m not capturing that on film.”
“I walk away from the film in amazement that Awni and his entire family are able to hold on to their dignity and to their humanity, in a situation that I think most people born into those circumstances would not be able to. For a 15-year-old kid, he’s incredibly wise, incredibly humane, incredibly brave, and those are also things I take away from the film and hope that others will take away as well.”
With Awni potentially facing years in an Israeli military prison, however, it’s unclear whether the qualities that have helped him persevere and which have made him so strong until now, will manage to survive much longer.
“There’s that little spark of hope that’s there,” Orr told Ma’an. “But then you break it.”