Through These Small Eyes

Filmmaker and author Ismael Jabarine is making a documentary following the lives of children in Jenin refugee camp, northern Palestine, the scene of the brutal  invasion by the Israeli army in 2002. Filmed over eight years, Jabarine’s film will document the effects of trauma and chronic living conditions on ten children from the ages of 10 through to 18.

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Children in Jenin refugee camp. March 2015. Photo: M.Whitton

Jenin, Palestine (TFC) – It’s a hot Wednesday morning in Jenin refugee camp. Drinking coffee outside the Freedom Theatre, I begin talking to a man in a black Fedora hat with an accent initially hard to place. He asks me what I am doing in the camp and I explain I’m hoping to write an article about the role of culture in Palestinian resistance. He lights a cigarette and raises an eyebrow;

‘’Wow, you had better do something different then. Tons of articles have been written about this place.’’  These being my thoughts exactly, I ask him the same question.

Haifa born author and journalist Ismail Jabarine is on one of his twice yearly visits to Jenin camp. At the age of 17, Palestinian Jabarine spent a year in an Israeli prison for organising one of the first Land Day protests at school.  At 18, he left Palestine for Germany. Now, a father of two in his mid-forties, he freelances for a German TV company in Hamburg.

His frequent visits to Jenin over the years have seen Jabarine develop intense and long term relationships with some of the children, motivating him to create a film documenting the childhood of five boys and five girls from the ages of 10 to 18. Claiming that whole generations in the camp are traumatised in one way or another, Jabarine’s plan is to demonstrate through the camera lens how the brutal living conditions in a refugee camp under Israeli occupation massively influence childhood development.

‘’Through my work with kids, there was a kind of love relationship. I knew the families, their stories and difficulties. I saw in the kids a lack of enthusiasm, there was no understanding, no meaning.’’

With hours of raw footage already shot, Jabarine is clear on his creative process.

‘’I knew I had to do this by myself.  I talked to professionals who recommended lenses and cameras.  I wanted to work for two or three years, alone initially to produce a trailer.’’

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Children at an internet cafe in Jenin refugee camp, March 2015. Photo: M.Whitton

Home to over 13,000 people in cinder block structures, densely populated Jenin refugee camp is a rabbit warren of narrow streets and alleyways. Referred to by some as ‘the heart of the Palestinian resistance’ and by others as ‘the Martyrs Capital,’ Jenin was the scene of a vicious invasion by the Israeli Army in 2002, leaving scores dead and injured, and homes turned to rubble.

‘’Speak to any kid. They have lost a family member, a friend or a neighbour and most have witnessed this with their own eyes.’’ Jabarine says.

While chatting, two small boys linger beside us. Referring affectionately to them as ‘my kids’ Jabarine says ‘bukra’ to them, meaning tomorrow in Arabic. Every six months he comes to the camp for a period of condensed filming and to catch up on the children’s news as he flits between the camp and his family home in Haifa. Tomorrow it’s the boy’s turn to be filmed.

Jabarine says the most important thing is to build trust with the kids, many of whom are suspicious after witnessing unthinkable horrors. He describes getting to know each child’s personality, their humour and their tempers and talks about small battles that ensue over who will sit in the front seat, or hold the camera and tripod.  He likes the idea of them getting to know each other throughout the process of film making.

‘’I don’t want to ask questions, I just want them to talk. They tell me different things, one lost their grandfather, some had neighbours killed or arrested. They tell me what has been happening at school. You know, all the things that were important to them over the last six months.’’

Still subject to the regular terror of night-time incursions into the camp by Israeli Forces, he describes the pleasure the children get just from holding the camera.

‘’Hanging round with a man with a camera was something they loved from the beginning.  Someone was focusing on them for the first time. Unfortunately the parents are often busy with other children or work and when a Palestinian from abroad comes and focuses on them, it’s a beautiful thing.’’

The children understand that if the film is successful then thousands of people will see them growing up. Excited at the thought, some of them have already started to ask Jabarine if they can attend the premiere in Europe. He describes the responsibility of their fragile hopes as feeling like a burden at times.

Strolling around the camp we encounter a bloody scene, as a whole cow carcass swings upside down from a hook. Thirty young men of all ages sit in a circle smoking shisha, laughing and chatting as the cow’s blood trickles around their feet. A stunning Lebanese Mawal blares from a powerful sound system in an atmosphere full of excitement as they prepare for a wedding in the camp. Jabarine’s familiarity within the camp is evident as small children follow us around calling ‘’Sura? Sura?’’ begging us to take their pictures.

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Wedding celebrations in Jenin refugee camp. Photo: M.Whitton

Having built deeply trusting relationships with the families, Jabarine’s fear is that his close relationships with the five girls will change as they reach teenage years due to the conservative culture.

“I respect the camp and their mentality, but will I still be able to meet with them like I do now in two or three years? All the parents trust me, but this may change as the girls get older. I may be forced to find an alternative like getting a woman to do the interviewing.’’ He pauses for thought. “Hmmm, maybe this is the solution’’

Asked if he thinks whether being a Palestinian makes the filmmaking process smoother, he says it definitely benefits his relationships, particularly with the parents.

‘’Their story is mine more or less, I know their habits, their traditions and I speak the language.’’

Some of the camp’s residents even share Jabarine’s surname, more than 85% of Jenin camp are refugees from the Haifa area.

‘’Being Palestinian I understand more, I can read between the lines and understand subtleties. I don’t need to waste time on questions. This opens many doors for me in the camp that may not be opened to foreigners.’’

Asked who his intended audience is, Jabarine says he cannot possibly think about that at this stage

’’If I start with this, I will not make a good film. Of course Palestinians are not the target, as they know all about the situation. I guess I’m aiming at an international audience and people who know nothing about the Israeli occupation.’’