To Die in Jerusalem

“I lost my daughter in March 2002,” Abigail Levy says into the phone. “I’m trying to reach the parents of my daughter’s killer.” This scene, the start of To Die in Jerusalem, takes place six months after the suicide bombing in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. Now, Abigail’s story is entwined forever with the parents of 17-year-old Rachel’s killer. These stories were also turned into a particular kind of history, recorded and shaped by mass media — tragic, emblematic, and sensational.

Hilla Medalia’s documentary here cuts back to the bombing, with images that are at once poignant and lurid: set in a slow motion, young Rachel appears against a red background, her face made especially visible as she dances. She gives way to a similarly composed portrait of her killer, Ayat al-Akhras, of similar age and appearance, her long dark hair and bright smile rhyming with her victim’s. And explosion sounds off screen, and then each mother offers her memories of the day: when she heard the news, how she came to understand her child was involved.

The mothers form the film’s focus, and Medalia will interview them, literally, for years. Their efforts to meet with one another are ongoing, sometimes arduous, sometimes vigorous, and at other times on hold, as they take up their remaining lives — with husbands and children, with communities. Still, both mothers are burdened with knowledge and fear, their efforts to narrate what happened italicized by the fact that they are visited on occasion by a camera crew. In fact, the camera is the film’s third term throughout: as the two mothers grapple not only with their own feelings but also with the ways that media frame and present those feelings to a variety of audiences.

If Abigail and Um Samir’s experience of media is not unique, it is certainly acute. Their example reveals for us the ways that media, inevitable and pervasive, shape war and peace, politics and personal existence, self-image and perception of others. Even as the film — as a document and a sort of diary — creates a certain order for their grief, cameras are also key to the beginning of their parallel journeys. Most obviously, Rachel and Ayat were instantly mediated, their deaths the much-discussed subject of a 2002 Newsweek cover story that emphasized their similar lives, their matching appearances and adolescent aspirations. At the same time, however, as To Die in Jerusalem points out, their deaths were also marked in specific ways by media: footage by TV news crews and police forensics teams show that it was raining, that other traumatized victims at the market stood tearfully and waited to be interviewed, as is the custom on such occasions. (The death toll was three that day, including a security guard who tried to stop Ayat from entering.)

Um Samir speaks for Medalia’s camera, seated in her home near a wall shrine to Ayat. “They said it was a female bomber,” she recalls of the early TV reports. “I wondered, weren’t there any men around?” When she learned the “girl” was from Bethlehem, she remembers, “I felt uneasy, as I thought the story keeps getting closer to us.” When she hears the bomber was from the Dehaishe camp, she says tersely, “I felt the fire.” Abigail was also watching TV: “I knew from the beginning that I lost her.”

The TV news archive is enhanced by another recently developed custom, Ayat’s martyr’s statement. This reveals a grim, performative determination, recorded two hours before her operation. Simultaneously defiant and compliant, Ayat reads from a paper, praising God and then underlining her frustration, the point that seemingly drove her to act: “To Arab leaders I say, enough sleeping, betrayal, and failure to fulfill Palestine’s duty.” Her understanding of this duty, the documentary illustrates, is a function of her experience in the Dehaishe refugee camp outside Bethlehem, just four miles from the Levys’ home. Born in the camp, Ayat never knew options. Her father Abu Samir says, “Her dream was to one day have her own family and children,” a story that normalizes and contains her, as does his next assessment: “It was God’s will that drove her into martyrdom.” Engaged to be married at the time of her mission, Ayat gave no sign of her intentions, except, maybe, her mother recalls, “When I think back on those days, the look in her eyes was not normal. The girl was staring at me… she was more beautiful than the moon but there was something different about her face. She was saying goodbye with her eyes.”

These eyes are visible again and again in To Die in Jerusalem, set alongside Rachel’s, their childhood faces composed for snapshots and family videotapes. These sweet, un-ominous images stand in contrast to the photos and painted images of Ayat, posing with a handgun or smiling serenely, memorializing her martyrdom at school and in her parents’ home. They contrast as well with shots of Rachel as a young woman, her plans to travel and be known (“I’m going to be the president or his wife”).

The childhood pictures — the girls so pleased to be photographed — are also at odds with a videotape of Ayat’s sister Summar, seated against a wall in the Women’s Mourning Room, crying out her rage (“She went on her own because others have no courage”), then collapsing as a man’s hand enters and fills the frame, asking the camera operator, “please, please,” to stop shooting. This moment is striking in the film, as so much of it is about the incessant drive to document and report, to attest to feelings and assert intentions in a public way. This moment raises a question: when is such documentation too much, when must it stop? When is such horrendous grief or rage wholly private, even undocumentable?

These questions loom as To Die in Jerusalem turns increasingly complex. At first the film is a seeming straightforward opportunity for the mothers to “express themselves,” to declare in carefully orchestrated frames their interpretations of their fates and their desires to meet and interpret one another. Abigail asserts, “I want to look at their face when they talk to me, I want to see if they really, really didn’t know that their daughter was going to kill.” And then the film turns into something else, too, a means to integrate the parents’ diverging stories. While Abigail wants to know what Ayat’s parents know (or knew), Abu Samir shifts the perspective, slightly and significantly: “I always teach my children to love others but unfortunately, occupation practices like killings, demolitions and imprisonments have changed the way boys and girls think.” In other words, the film is not only about the public processes of private anguish, but also about the “conditions” that produce hopelessness and outrage, the lives that make martyrs. Children in the camp see for themselves, says Abu Samir. “These conditions have forced us and our children to carry out operations. It became a duty to resist the occupation.”

The arguments about occupation and resistance as connected forms of violence swirl throughout the film. In one disturbing scene, Abigail visits Arab women inmates in HaSharon prison, her insistence that there must be “another way” than violence met with an implacable story, told by a mother of four: “When I see that my friends and family are killed in front of me,” says one would-have-been-bomber, “I want to retaliate. This way, at least, you — the Israeli people — would realize how much we are suffering. And when you lose one of your children, you’d realize how dear they are to you. We feel the same way.”

But even if all mothers feel “the same way,” the mothers here are unable to get past the impasse, seeking order in tragedy, imagining revenge will provide it. The impasse sets up the eventual exchange that does, at last, take place between Abigail and Um Samir, which serves as the documentary’s riveting climax. The exchange takes place nearly five years after the bombing and — so terribly appropriately — by TV. Unable to cross borders or feel safe in one another’s homes, they finally meet by satellite hook-up, fumbling with their earpieces and posed before studio backdrops. The film shows them before the monitors they see, and also takes these TV images as direct addresses, each woman (and Abu Samir, who accompanies his wife according to custom) looking at her mirror image in the other.

Both mothers seek peace and understanding and both leave the meeting frustrated. Um Samir insists Abigail will never understand, because “You are not under occupation, we are the oppressed, the imprisoned, with the killings and assassinations… We have become like fish in a sealed can.” Abigail wants Um Samir to go public — on TV — and say that what her daughter did was wrong, to urge other mothers to instruct their children differently, to stop the cycle. Um Samir sees the cycle differently. As Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, advises Abigail, “If they regret what their daughter did, their suffering will be even more. It would mean their daughter was killed for nothing and the outcome is zero.”

As much as the women insist to one another that they want to speak with one another as “mothers,” to leave out “politics” and find common ground, they are, in the end, both stuck with exactly this: they can’t accept an outcome of zero. And they can only avoid that outcome within the frameworks — the stories — where they reside. For all its plot turns and emotional flourishes, for all its overt pronouncements and laments, To Die in Jerusalem is most memorably concerned with the women’s efforts to imagine and, importantly in this media moment, to project life past that zero.

RATING 8 / 10