Escape by art doesn't go far

SUN JOURNAL

Festivals: In music and film, the horror of war lingers over Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem.

August 01, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The deep sounds of the cello reverberate through the outdoor amphitheater, a rock tomb dating back nearly 2,000 years. The music is by a Palestinian composer, writing from an Israeli jail.

Not far away, a movie screen flickers with images of a reluctant Palestinian suicide bomber as he blends into a parade of festive Israelis, scans the laughing faces of children and prepares to detonate his explosives with a trigger hidden in his hand.

Those two scenes are from two arts festivals, one Palestinian, devoted to music, one Israeli, devoted to film, held in separate parts of a city divided by culture, class, religion and politics.

Both audiences said they wanted to escape, if only for a few hours, the exhausting war being fought on their doorsteps. Even so, it is impossible for art to avoid reflecting the somber mood of Jerusalem and its environs.

"Despite our complicated situation, culture must flourish," says Nazmi al-Jubeh, an organizer of the recent Palestinian music festival, called Songs of Freedom. Nobody thinks this is possible, he says, "because they all think we're terrorists."

Both festivals used venues that summoned the long history of this part of the world. The Palestinians turned the Tomb of the Kings into an outdoor amphitheater. Tradition holds that Queen Helena of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia built the tomb in 45 A.D. for her sons and others in her dynasty.

Two miles away, on the other side of the Old City, Israelis set up a giant screen at Sultan's Pool, part of Jerusalem's ancient water source and now also a theater. Thousands packed the stands on opening night.

"It was a strange scene, enchanted in its setting, and made all the more wonderful given the situation," according to an editorial in the Jerusalem Post a few days later. "From a distance, Israel is a country in which nothing happens save for terror attacks, military reprisals, gun battles, mortar shelling, the threat of more terror, and so on."

The paper said that "those of us who live here know it differently: a country in which people insist on, and as often as not succeed in, living their lives as normally as possible. ... There is a pervasive threat of Palestinian terrorism, and this factors into everything we do. But it's a mistake to say we're ruled by it."

More than 200 films were screened during the nine-day event, a typical festival of off-beat and often eccentric movies that included everything from a documentary on Czech nudist colonies to a story about a search for love in the sands of the Sinai.

If some offerings were entertaining, others confronted the everyday fears of life here. Miriam Sarid drove from a small West Bank settlement near Jericho to watch movies about suicide bombings and saw three in one day. "They were very powerful," she says.

Sarid has never been near an attack, but says that "even if you don't see it, you experience and see the repercussions. Bombings happen, and when they do, you just have to keep going. I basically came here because I wanted to get out a bit. I chose these because this is how we live."

Several people couldn't sit all the way through one of the films, Purim, directed by 29-year-old Lavi Ben-Gal, who told an hourlong tale of a suicide bomber intersecting with the lives of four Israeli families.

"This is what people see every time they go out their doors," Ben-Gal said after the showing. "I know it's hard, but this is our reality. It's important for people to see."

Ben-Gal focused on Israelis preparing for the festive Purim holiday, during which children dress in costume and join parades, and of a reluctant suicide bomber sent to blow himself up in the heart of Tel Aviv.

One little girl is dressed as an angel, an immigrant nurse is struggling to get her child from Russia, and a plumber is trying to fix broken pipes and a broken relationship - disconnected lives that slowly tumble toward tragedy.

"You will watch the parade on TV," a doctor mindful of bombing warnings tells his young, disappointed son, as a Purim song rings from a car radio: "Despite our troubles, we shall live. We are all going crazy."

Meanwhile, in a West Bank city, militants hold a young bomber in a chair, strapping an explosive belt to his waist. "I don't want to die," he says repeatedly. The film cuts to the Israeli child in the angel costume, and the fanciful Purim song: "We can live a different life, in a different world."

Then, the bomber makes his way past police officers on alert and wades into the crowded parade. He repeatedly glances at dancing, happy children, and passes up opportunities to detonate. Finally, however, the screen fades to black amid a wail of sirens and urgent news flashes about an explosion.

Only a handful are injured, including the angelic girl. Israeli police called it a malfunction. But the film leaves viewers with the impression that the hesitant bomber did not want to cause mass casualties.

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