Jon Donnison
BBC News
January 28, 2010 - 1:00am

Standing in the dusty, half-lit lobby of Cinema Jenin with paint splattered builders beavering away all around, it's hard to imagine that this venue was once the place to be on the Jenin social scene.

The cinema in the centre of the West Bank city was first opened in 1957.

But over the years, Jenin has seen some of the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the cinema was eventually forced to close during the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the mid 1980s.

But now it is being renovated, and is due to re-open in August 2010.

"It will be finished. It will definitely be finished," says assistant project manager Mamoun Kanan with a cheeky smile, as he stands on the pile of rubble that will eventually be the cinema's main entrance.

The cinema will seat more than 300 people, in the original chairs from the 1950s and 1960s, which are now being restored.

The inspiration for the cinema's renovation followed the success of the film Heart Of Jenin.

The award-winning documentary directed by German filmmaker Marcus Vetter followed the story of Palestinian Ismail Khatib.

Five years ago, Mr Khatib's 11-year-old son Ahmed was shot dead by Israeli soldiers who mistook his toy gun for a real one during the second Intifada.

The Israeli military expressed regret for the death.

Lives saved

Remarkably, Khatib chose to donate his son's organs to five children and a woman in Israel. Ahmed's kidneys, liver, heart and lungs were transplanted into Israeli citizens including Jews, Arabs and a Druze girl.

For five of them, the organ donations saved their lives.

"For me this new cinema is for Ahmed, " Mr Khatib says. "It's for all his friends. They can come here and feel Ahmed all around them."

At the time, Mr Khatib said saving lives was more important than religion, adding "I feel that my son has entered the heart of every Israeli".

I ask him how it would feel to one day watch an Israeli film in Cinema Jenin.

"No problem," he says, "it's all about respecting each others' culture and learning."

Until a few years ago, Jenin was a dangerous place. It was not uncommon to see gunmen from different Palestinian militant groups on the streets.

Incursions from the occupying Israeli army were frequent.

Now things seem relatively calm. The Palestinian Authority has stepped up security and Israel has relaxed some of the checkpoints into the city.

Some militants have sought work in the security forces. One has even opened a theatre company.

'Red carpet'

It is estimated the new cinema will cost close to 500,000 euros. Much of the money has come from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture. The German government has contributed 170,000 euros.

The musician Roger Waters from Pink Floyd has also donated a state-of-the-art sound system for the cinema.

In August 2010, the cinema is due to host the first Jenin International Film Festival. Heart of Jenin will be shown on the opening night.

"The whole project is a real positive change for Jenin," says Mr Kanan. "We have high unemployment here and it will provide jobs and boost the economy."

"Also its fun. People here need something to enjoy."

Kanan says the cinema will eventually show films from all around the world.

"Israeli films?" I ask him. "Yes of course, because we are looking for peace. International movies, Palestinian movies, Israeli movies. It's all the same. We are all human above everything."

A special council is being set up including the mufti, the local Muslim religious leader, to help decide the films that will be shown.

In the 1960s and 1970s, locals say the cinema used to show sex films one night a week.

"There'll be none of that this time," laughs projectionist Franz Macher, who's over from Germany to train young Palestinian projectionists.

"These days society is much more conservative so we need to be careful what we show. We don't want to censor films, but we would rather show a good film censored than not show it at all."

"What about violent films?" I ask.

"Yes the mufti has not forbidden it but he has asked us to be careful about violent films. People have seen enough violence here already."

That will be no problem for five-year-old Safedin, who I meet outside the cinema.

He is keen to see Toy Story - while his eight-year-old sister Kutel is hoping for Barbie on the opening night.

In a ramshackle room at the back of the building sits the old cinema's projector.

Two metres high, the machine still whirs into action after a bit of tinkering from Mr Macher.

"In the summer we'll be rolling out the red carpet," says Felix Gebauer, who's organising the 2010 Jenin Film festival.

He says they are expecting Hollywood star Leonardo Di Caprio and the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to be among the guests, although neither have given public confirmation of their attendence.

But 15-year-old Rassan, who runs the food kiosk next to the cinema, is not impressed.

"I want to see the Barcelona football!" he demands, "I hear they are coming too."


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