Profile: Israel's Movie Censorship Board Bans Documentary

Morning Edition: January 1, 2003

Israel Bans Film about Jenin Refugee Camp


Israel's movie censorship board has banned a documentary about last year's Israeli army deployment in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. It's the first time in 20 years that the board has banned a movie for political reasons. Critics say the documentary is one-sided and portrays Israeli soldiers as war criminals. Civil rights advocates say censorship is outdated and that the banning order could become a precedent-setting case. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.


The hourlong documentary "Jenin, Jenin" is a collection of interviews with residents of the Jenin refugee camp filmed in April, a week after Israeli soldiers leveled dozens of buildings in the center of the camp in what was for Israel the costliest battle of last spring's offensive in the West Bank. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the running battles with Palestinian gunmen. Mohammad Bakri, an Israeli Arab and a well-known actor, directed the film, which opens with close-up shots of the piles of rubble that used to be Palestinian homes.


GRADSTEIN: In one interview, an old man sitting on a hospital bed describes his experiences when the Israeli soldiers came.


Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: `I was sleeping at night and they said everyone had to go to the school,' he said. `As I was on the way, a soldier beat me. I fell on the ground and then he shot me in the hand and the foot.' The film also interviews one man who contends that Israeli soldiers forced Palestinian children to demolish houses in the camp. Those who didn't move fast enough, he says, were shot. The battle for Jenin sparked international controversy.

A senior Palestinian official accused Israel of massacring more than 500 people in the camp. The United Nations appointed a commission of inquiry, but Israel refused to let its members visit the scene. Human rights activists who did go to the Jenin camp put the Palestinian death toll in the battle at about 50, including civilians as well as gunmen. When Bakri's film premiered at the Tel Aviv Cinematek last month, protesters demonstrated against it, saying it was one-sided and biased against Israel. A short time after the premiere, Israel's film censorship board ruled that "Jenin, Jenin" could no longer be screened in movie theaters in Israel. Ahlil Gutemin(ph), a member of the board who initiated the decision, says that in the past 20 years, the board has censored only a few films for pornography or excessive violence. But he says this movie promotes the Palestinian viewpoint when Israel is in a state of war with the Palestinians.

Mr. AHLIL GUTEMIN (Censorship Board Member): (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: `Let's say al-Qaeda funded a movie in the United States that presented all of the Americans as evil murderers and al-Qaeda as the good guys,' he said. `I'm sure they wouldn't allow it to be shown there. Even democracy has limits.'

Just what those limits are in Israel is what the film's promoters hope to find out. Producer and director Mohammad Bakri says he will appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court against the censorship decision. Legal commentator Moshe Nogbi says Bakri is likely to win.

Mr. MOSHE NOGBI (Legal Commentator): The Israeli Supreme Court ruled as in many other cases dealing with freedom of speech, freedom of expression that the government can use this censorship power only when there is clear and present danger to public order or public peace.

GRADSTEIN: Nogbi says the court heard a similar case 10 years ago in which the censorship board tried to ban an Israeli play that portrayed Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories as Nazis. In that case, the Supreme Court not only allowed the play to be shown, it said the board can no longer censor theater. Nogbi says "Jenin, Jenin" could end censorship of films as well. Director Mohammad Bakri says the film has already gotten positive feedback from Europe, but he says his target audience is Israelis who have demonized Palestinians during the past two years of conflict.

Mr. MOHAMMAD BAKRI (Director, "Jenin, Jenin"): To know that on the other side, there are fathers and mothers and children the same way they have houses, you know, house for Arab, for Palestinian, I think for everybody in the world is the most precious thing in the world.

GRADSTEIN: Bakri says he hopes his film will encourage both sides to realize that they are fated to live together and must try to find a solution through negotiations. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

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