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Grieving Mothers on 2 Sides of a Suicide Bombing

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By | on October 24, 2007

The cover of Newsweek framed the story starkly: side-by-side pictures of Ayat al-Akhras, an 18-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber, and 17-year-old Rachel Levy, killed by the bomb that Ms. Akhras detonated on March 29, 2002, at a Jerusalem supermarket. The two looked as if they could have been sisters and should have been living the lives of carefree teenagers, instead of becoming tragic symbols of the intractable Middle East conflict.

Hilla Medalia/HBO

From left, Abu and Um Samir al-Akhras, the parents of Ayat al-Akhras, who killed herself in a bombing in Jerusalem

HBO’s documentary president, Sheila Nevins, haunted by the cover, dispatched two established American producers — she declined to name them in an interview — to begin work on a film. They weren’t able to make inroads with Ms. Akhras’s family, and the project was dropped.

But HBO got its film anyway, from a first-time Israeli feature-filmmaker, Hilla Medalia, who saw the same magazine cover, had the same idea and succeeded where the others had failed. Her film, “To Die in Jerusalem,” will be shown on HBO beginning on Nov. 1; it will also open the Paley Center for Media’s documentary festival tonight.

The film traces the efforts to bring the two mothers of the dead girls, who live less than four miles apart, face to face for a meeting that Ms. Levy’s mother, Avigail Levy, said she believed would be cathartic as well as a symbol of hope, a chance to transcend entrenched hatreds. Ultimately, stymied by fears of venturing into enemy territory, cultural differences and the bureaucracies of war, the two meet only by satellite, unable to bridge the physical chasm. The emotional gulf proves equally unfathomable.

At the time of the bombing, Ms. Medalia, now 30 and living in New York, was looking for a topic for a film she needed to make to complete her master’s degree at Southern Illinois University. The story of the girls struck her as a way to show the conflict in a manner that even those who didn’t follow the situation closely could comprehend.

“This is a very humanistic, personal story of mothers and daughters that can be told,” she said.

With a call to directory assistance, she found Avigail Levy. It was harder to track down Ms. Akhras’s parents in the Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem, but soon she was talking, separately, to Abu and Um Samir al-Akhras. The resulting film, “Daughters of Abraham,” won an award at the Angelus Student Film Festival in Los Angeles and drew the attention of the brothers John and Ed Priddy, entrepreneurs in Boise, Idaho, who were beginning to finance films.

“Here you had two dead daughters, two grieving mothers and a woman who had the tremendous courage to go in and examine what was going on,” said John Priddy, one of the executive producers. Ms. Nevins of HBO learned about the project, and jumped at the chance to get the film she had wanted.

Ms. Medalia, who had initially been afraid as an Israeli to venture into the Palestinian territory for the filming, returned to Jerusalem, confident that she could arrange a meeting of the mothers. It was obvious to anyone who saw the student film, Mr. Priddy said, “that these two women have to meet, which was the naïveté of the whole thing.”

Among other challenges, Ms. Akhras would not or could not travel without her husband, and he, the father of a suicide bomber, was not eligible for a visa to visit Jerusalem, Ms. Medalia said. At one point the filmmakers reached out to the Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, to be a neutral mediator, and in April 2006 he escorted Ms. Levy into the West Bank.

But the accompanying members of the film crew were detained for several hours by Palestinian authorities, and by the time they were released, night was falling. A scared Ms. Levy asked to return to Jerusalem, the plan for a meeting abandoned.

And there it stood, some 300 hours of footage shot, and still an unfinished film, until Ms. Nevins ran into the Priddys in August 2006 at the Sundance Institute. Over lunch the idea was floated that the mothers could meet by satellite. As disappointed as Ms. Medalia was that she couldn’t physically unite the women, she said, “the satellite to me really represented the reality.”

For four hours the mothers talked, which Ms. Medalia found hopeful. But many viewers will not get the ending they want. The renunciation of violence that Ms. Levy seeks never comes, supplanted by the rhetoric of grievances, as Ms. Levy talks about hate that goes back decades, and Ms. Akhras details the hardships of Palestinian life.

At one point, when Ms. Levy says resistance is not worth loss of life, Ms. Akhras asks: “Should I resist occupation with a bouquet of roses? On a tray of gold?”

Dennis Ross, the former United States ambassador and Middle East peace negotiator under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, called the film both “powerful” and “poignant.” Mr. Ross, now a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview that getting to a solution is about “taking on your personal history and being able to say, ‘Enough of that.’”

But Ms. Akhras, he noted, “just can’t cross that threshold at a human level, even though you can see that she feels it.” He called her “a prisoner of the context she lives in,” adding, “The narrative of conflict is very powerful.” For critics who accused Newsweek of making a moral equivalency by pairing bomber and victim, the evenhandedness of “To Die in Jerusalem” may strike a similar chord. “No matter on what side your sympathies lie, you’ll feel the other side is too fairly represented,” Ms. Nevins said.

Ms. Medalia deflected questions about her own political views, and said of the film, “I’m not trying to compare; all I’m trying to do is to give the stage to two mothers, to get a glimpse of their world.” In the end, she said, “you actually feel in your heart the conflict.”

Or as Ms. Nevins put it, “If you can’t make a connection through the hurt of your children, I don’t know how you can.”

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