Student filmmaker creates documentary confronting Israeli-Palestinian conflict

By Gus Bode

Hilla Medalia wasn’t planning to be a first-hand witness to the magnitude of a suicide bomber’s attack when she traveled to Israel last December to document the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But during her trip, Medalia was two blocks away when a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv ignited explosives killing 32 people. With her video camera, she ran toward the site and filmed the chaos and casualties associated with the tragedy.

Much of what Medalia filmed was too graphic to include in her graduate thesis project. But before the incident, Medalia, a graduate student in mass communications from Israel, knew she wanted to address the struggle in her homeland through a documentary.


Before she witnessed the suicide bomber’s attack, she had already filmed and interviewed people about a similar event that happened on March 29, 2002.

In Jerusalem that day, Rachel Levy, a 17-year-old Israeli, walked into a neighborhood market to buy food for dinner. A few steps behind her was 18-year-old Ayat al-Akhras, a female suicide bomber from a refugee camp in the Palestinian West Bank. The blast shattered glass and concrete at the entrance of the market and killed the two girls and an Israeli guard.

Medalia was deeply moved by the incident and decided to use it as a device to educate people and clear up misconceptions about the cultures and societies of the two regions.

“Usually when you hear about a conflict you hear about it from a political perspective,” she said. “Basically, my film is showing their life and their death and the conflict from a different perspective – a people perspective.”

Israel is a lot like America, she said. Bad things can happen but no one believes it will affect them.

Medalia knew that contacting the families of the girls and getting them to agree to an interview would be difficult. She spent more than $300 in overseas phone calls and was able to set up the trip to Israel and the West Bank. She arranged for a driver and a translator and found a hotel in the West Bank for her crew.

Because she is an Israeli, Medalia decided not to go into the West Bank. She instead talked with the Palestinian family via telephone.


Thompson was surprised her student got both families to agree to an interview.

“When she told me that this is what she wanted to do I thought it was way ambitious,” Thompson said. “She was able to get contacts with the families and convince them that she was serious because this isn’t a light topic. This is not something normally I think family members would want to talk about all that much because it’s a horrible tragedy.”

One concern was the safety of Medalia and her crew. Thompson said it was difficult to convince some members of the University that traveling to Israel and the West Bank was not as dangerous as it can seem.

“One thing people have to know is that Hilla is from Israel,” Thompson said. “She knows exactly what she’s getting into and I don’t believe she would have pursued this if she didn’t think it could be done within safety guidelines.”

The College of Mass Communication and Media Arts dean’s office, the Graduate School and the SIUC Legal Department supported her project. The college allowed Medalia and her crew to borrow cameras and other equipment to take to Israel and the West Bank for her documentary.

Her film cost more than $20,000 and included the free equipment loans from the college. But more than $6,000 of the total cost came from Medalia’s own pocket.

“You have a handful of students like Hilla that no matter what, they want to get the project done, and cost isn’t going to be an issue,” Thompson said. “She will hopefully realize that once she gets done that this is a major accomplishment for her or anybody to have done something like this.”

Staying in Israel for her own safety, her crew went into the refugee camp in the West Bank. When videographers Chrissy Mazzone and James Saldana went into the camp, they saw endless walls of graffiti and painted shrines to suicide bombers. Unlike the name, the Dheisheh refugee camp was anything but a bunch of tents. The United Nations built concrete houses and schools, but the narrow streets were filled with children and trash.

Mazzone, a junior in radio-television, noticed distinct differences between Israel and the West Bank. The language barrier could have been the main distinction between Israel and the United States. There were malls, schools and public transportation and influenced by Western culture.

Mazzone said the building structures in the West Bank, although a lot better than she originally anticipated, were “monuments to inefficiency.” She said the film would help show Americans the differences and similarities between the regions as well as addressing the struggle.

“I thought it was a really unique way to go about looking at this,” Mazzone said. “Hilla presented it as it would be a non-biased way to view the conflict there. It’s amazing to see the lives of these two girls and parallel them – they look so similar.”

Saldana, a graduate student in mass communications, said the female view brings the film to a personal level and allows audiences to have compassion for the families of the girls.

“Hilla definitely has a very clear vision of what she wants to do and I think it’s very powerful,” Saldana said. “Maybe she was the only one that really saw the uniqueness of the situation.”

Al-Akhras, the suicide bomber, and Levy, the victim of the bombing, lived within four miles of each other, and while they looked similar, they were anything but. Medalia said the Palestinian family, although living in the refugee camp, is better off compared to the rest of the West Bank, and also wealthier than the Levy family in Israel, she said.

Although the Palestinian family has close to a dozen children and need more space, their apartment has nice furniture and decorations. Even the couches include matching heart pillows. The Israeli family lives in an area that has a more Western influence, but their home is not as big as the Palestinian family’s house.

The lifestyles of women are another distinction between the two cultures. While Palestinian women have to cover their heads and are not supposed to speak, the Israeli women do not have those restrictions. Al-Akhras, who is third-known female suicide bomber, wore Western-style clothing and covered her head, Medalia said.

Before the interview, Medalia encouraged her mother to talk. For more than an hour during the interview, al-Akhras’ mother did not speak until she became more comfortable with the situation. When she did not speak, she bowed her head and stared at the floor until she spoke again.

While Israelis consider al-Akhras to be a suicide bomber, Mazzone said Palestinians consider her to be a martyr and have pictures depicting a bold heroine.

“I think that when Ayat decided to become a martyr, to kill her self, that she didn’t see herself as a woman,” Mazzone said. “I think she saw herself as a political entity who had to do whatever she had to do.”

Afterward, pictures of al-Akhras were posted all around the West Bank in tribute. One part of the graffiti in the refugee camp included the Jewish Star of David. Medalia said that like a lot of the graffiti, the Arab words probably said something negative about Israelis.

In contrasting the lives of the two girls, Medalia said that both families have coped with the deaths of their daughters differently. The family of al-Akhras considers their daughter to be a hero but said people eventually will forget about her sacrifice. But Medalia said the Levy family is finding that time is making her death harder on them. They are realizing that their daughter is never going to return from the market.

Now in post-production, Medalia is editing the interviews and film of Israel and the West Bank. She said the hardest part of the post-production stage is done – spending more than 50 hours spent translating the interviews and deciding what clips to include in the film. For a 30-minute documentary on a challenging topic, Medalia has her standards set high.

She hopes to have the film ready to air by March 29 to mark the one-year anniversary of the bombing.

“I’m really attached to the whole subject,” Medalia said. “The film really influenced me. My parents were really afraid that I am working with too difficult of an issue to deal with.”

Reporter Lindsey J. Mastis can be reached at [email protected]