By Tim Stoner, EGM Contributor
This is the first part of a multi-part series on film screenings in Palestine and Israel. Additional posts can be read on the Little Town of Bethlehem website.
Dusk is settling in, and with it the cold. It is six o’clock, an hour after curfew in the little town of Bethlehem. It is December 10, 2009 and about 150 people have made their way to the auditorium at Bethlehem University for the premiere screening of a film that will undoubtedly stir intense emotions. They’ve gathered to watch Little Town of Bethlehem, a documentary that explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the most volatile issues of our time. It is a complex struggle that sometime seems to defy solution.
The intensity of the decades-old hostilities and the fear engendered culminated in the building of a massive wall. Some refer to it as a separation fence. Towering 25 feet high, it was erected in large part to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel. Today it snakes some 240 miles and stands as a mute testimony to one of history’s most bitter conflicts. This wall also separates the two towns in which Little Town of Bethlehem will be premiered. Bethlehem has a population that hovers around 30,000, while Jerusalem, 10 miles away, has grown to more than 750,000.
The film’s aim is to cast a ray of hope on this bitter dispute. At the heart of the story are the experiences of three men on opposite sides of the conflict: Sami Awad (a Palestinian Christian), Ahmad Al’ Azzeh (a Palestinian Muslim), and Yonatan Shapira (an Israeli Jew). Despite very different backgrounds, they are now part of a vital movement that seeks a nonviolent solution in the Holy Land.
Sami joined EGM president Bill Oechsler on the auditorium stage to greet the audience—Bill spoke in English, Sami translated in Arabic. Ahmad sat in the bleachers with his family. Yonatan, as an Israeli, is not permitted in Bethlehem. A couple dozen Americans and Brits were also in attendance. They were given headsets that converted the Arabic version into English. Throughout the screening, the audience remained attentive, quiet, and respectful.
The first screening ended to polite applause. Unlike films that simply entertain or educate, EGM films like Little Town of Bethlehem also inform, challenge, and even provoke. One of their primary aims is to stimulate honest dialogue. Unfortunately, the team had to forego the usual Q&A session because another screening was scheduled for an hour later in Jerusalem. Bill and Sami did invite the audience back for a second showing with discussion at Aida Camp later that week.
Outside the auditorium the EGM team loaded up the bus and wound their way back toward the closest checkpoint. On board, they hurriedly ate falafel sandwiches with hummus. Nearing the checkpoint, they were slowed by a long line of vehicles waiting to pass through to the other side. Knowing they did not have time to wait, Bill and Sami jumped off the bus accompanied by Mart Green, EGM’s founder and the producer of Little Town of Bethlehem.
Running down an unlit alley then through a congested cabstand, they entered a labyrinth of hallways, turnstiles, and security booths. After passing through the final scanner and presenting their papers one last time, they found a car waiting. They jumped in and sped off toward the Jerusalem Cinematheque about a dozen miles away. The dashboard clock told them they had just 15 minutes before the film’s first screening in Israel was to begin.