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How a boy's death brought a West Bank cinema back to life

By Mark Tutton for CNN
  • A West Bank cinema is set to open its doors for the first time in 23 years
  • It's the brainchild of German filmmaker Marcus Vetter and Palestinian Ismael Khatib
  • They met filming "Heart of Jenin," about how Khatib donated his son's organs to six Israelis
  • Pink Floyd's Roger Waters donated equipment and money to the project

(CNN) -- A cinema in the West Bank city of Jenin will next week open for business for the first time in 23 years, following a remarkable chain of events that began with the death of a Palestinian boy.

In 2005, 11-year-old Ahmed Khatib was shot and killed in Jenin by Israeli soldiers who mistook his toy gun for a real one.

The Israeli government apologized for the incident, and in an extraordinary gesture, Ahmed's father, Ismael Khatib, decided to donate Ahmed's organs to six Israelis, both Arabs and Jews.

Ismael and Ahmed's story is told in the 2008 documentary "Heart of Jenin," made by Israeli director Leon Geller and German filmmaker Marcus Vetter.

The film follows Ismael as he visits the families of children who received Ahmed's organs, including an Orthodox Jewish family.

"Heart of Jenin" has won numerous awards, including the German Film Award for Best Documentary, but Vetter realized there was nowhere to show the film in Jenin itself, because the city's only cinema was closed in 1987 during the first intifada.

Vetter and Khatib were inspired to set about renovating Jenin's long-abandoned cinema.

"A city with 70,000 people without a cinema is sad -- there's nothing you can do and nowhere to go," Vetter told CNN.

We wanted to get the Jenin youth involved and give them a vision to believe in.
--Marcus Vetter, filmmaker

"I decided to stop making documentaries for a year and try to establish the cinema.

"We wanted to get the Jenin youth involved and give them a vision to believe in, something to aim for."

Khatib said he hoped the cinema would help keep Jenin's youngsters off the streets and out of danger.

"The people who go into Cinema Jenin will be Ahmed's friends, who are now 17 years old," he told CNN.

"Because Ahmed fell in the street it's a good place to bring together Ahmed's friends -- a safer place for them to get together, rather than being on the street.

"Jenin lacks these kinds of places and it needs them. It will give them a normal place to get together and lessen the amount of trouble during times like that."

Drawing on his connections in the movie business, Vetter convinced European sound engineers and cameramen to volunteer their time and technical expertise to help the project. But they had their work cut out for them.

Built in the 1960s and left abandoned for more than 20 years, the cinema was falling apart when renovation work began in 2008. It needed a new roof, the wooden chairs in the auditorium were rotting and the projection screen had been torn up.

More than 300 volunteers helped with the renovations and on August 5, Cinema Jenin is set to reopen with a three-day festival, beginning with a screening of "Heart of Jenin."

Vetter estimates the renovation work cost around $650,000, with another $650,000-worth of equipment being donated.

Funding came from the German government, the Palestinian Authority and individual donors. Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters donated the cinema's sound system and over $200,000.

Cinema Jenin isn't the only movie theater in the West Bank, but its manager, Fakhri Hamad, told CNN it will play an important role in the community.

"In Jenin, there is a big lack of culture and entertainment," he said.

People in the [refugee] camp are really poor, so they needed something affordable.
--Fakhri Hamad, manager, Cinema Jenin

"People in the [refugee] camp are really poor, so they needed something affordable -- that's why we decided to make the ticket price five shekels ($1.30)."

Vetter also sees the project as a chance to bring normality to a city trying to shed a reputation for violence.

"For the film I had to shoot in Jenin, and Jenin had a very bad reputation for suicide bombers.

"Everybody said it was too dangerous to go there, but that was not at all the case. In Jenin I met a totally different city and totally different people than I expected.

"There has been no armed resistance anymore for two years. The project came at just the right time. You don't see arms any more in Jenin, but a cinema, and hundreds of volunteers are bringing something normal for the city."

Hamad said the cinema will show a range of films that entertain and educate.

"We are not only showing serious films and documentaries, but at the same time I don't want to show something that has no meaning," he said

He told CNN he would have no problems showing Israeli films. "Most of the good films that show Palestinian suffering were made by Israeli filmmakers, so why not show them?"

The project also includes a film school, where youngsters have been working on short films, including one about the reopening of Cinema Jenin.

For Khatib, the cinema also has another purpose -- a way to keep Ahmed's memory alive.

"It will be a cinema for peace that will carry my son Ahmed's message," he told CNN.

"Hopefully it will join a number of different nationalities together and hopefully by bringing people together it will bring peace."

Raja Razek contributed to this story.