The Boy from H2: Israeli film brings conflict into spotlight at Berlin festival

Still from the film 'The boy from H2'
Courtesy B'Tselem
Israeli entry sheds an unpleasant spotlight onto life in the divided West Bank city of Hebron

A 12 year old Palestinian boy is taken by a soldier to his parents, accused of throwing stones. "What's with the children, why do you keep arresting them?" wonders a passerby, trying unsuccessfully to stop the two. They pass through narrow alleys and steep stone staircases, until they reach the boy's overcrowded home. Eventually the parents manage to pacify the soldier. The situation is resolved, at least for today.

So begins the Israeli short film “The Boy from H2,” which premiered Wednesday at the Berlin International Film Festival – a frequent stage in recent years for movies critical of Israel's policy towards Palestinians. This time, the Israeli entry sheds an unpleasant spotlight onto life in the divided city of Hebron, half of which is controlled by the Israeli military.

Produced by the human rights organization B'Tselem, the film follows Muhammad Burqan, one of ten brothers and sisters, who spends his days getting into trouble on the streets of Hebron. The 21 minute long film is a compilation of documentary footage by director Helen Yanovsty and clips taken by activists and local residents.

"I decided to participate because of the occupation, the checkpoints, because life was difficult for him and for the others," Muhammad explains at the festival, on his first visit abroad. "They [the soldiers] stop me, they take me to jail. It's a hard life and I wanted to show what the occupation does to me and my family."

In 2014 another film produced by B'Tselem was featured in the Berlinale Shorts category: "Smile, and the World Will Smile Back" documented a nighttime search at the home of the al-Haddad family, also residing in Hebron. Same as parts of the "The Boy from H2," it too was filmed by locals, the family members themselves, using cameras given to them by B'Tselem to document their daily lives and possible human right violations.

"In my opinion, the camera can be a tool against the occupation, because when soldiers face the camera, they are different," says Manal al-Ja'bri, a B'Tselem researcher who filmed the provocative opening scene. "They keep to a norm, they know the law. So it's a tool to discipline the soldiers."

The story of Muhammad, she argues, is representative of "the reality of all the children who are stopped at checkpoints and held for hours, provoked by the settlers and abused by them and by the border police."

Polina Garaev/ i24NEWS

"But Muhammad is special," insists Musa Abu Hashhash, another B'Tselem researcher, jumping into the conversation. It was he who in 2013 first came up with the idea to base a documentary film on Burqan.

"I noticed that he was both ordinary and extraordinary," he explains. "He was a clever boy, who has been abused almost every day. But there was something about him, choosing him wasn't random. I'm not sure that another boy would have worked as the protagonist."

The film allows viewers to experience the daily challenges of life in Hebron through Burqan's eyes, thus sending a powerful message. "What can you do in a framework of 20 minutes? It's a short time, and you can't just cry out slogans and shout," notes Yanovsky. "But to look through the eyes of a child, that is something one doesn't forget."

The reality presented in the film, she believes, would be surprising to both foreign and Israeli viewers. The film's creators now hope that the premiere at the Berlinale will pave the way for additional screenings worldwide, and especially in Israel.

But among those who view B'Tselem's activity as borderline treasonous, the announcement of the Berlin screening was met with harsh reactions. Some point out that many of the films of the critical Israeli director Udi Aloni, have also been embraced by the Berlin Film Festival – the latest being "Junction 48," winner of last year's Panorama Audience Award.

But Yanovsty rejects the critique: A movie doesn't need to be critical of Israel in order to be accepted onto the international stage, she insists. "They picked this film because of what it is, and not only because it's about Palestinians. It's a strong film.

"I really wish that all the people that criticize the film only because it was made by B'Tselem just… it's not a long film, only 20 minutes, so please go ahead and watch it, even ask us for a link. See it - and then let's talk."

Polina Garaev is i24NEWS's correspondent in Germany.

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