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Fiction meets fact in Hebron film

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Hebron

Actress Yousra Barakat (centre) in Hebron
The film tells of a girl who breaks curfew to attend her graduation
It is an ordinary story, in an extraordinary setting.

Hebron is the site for what its Israeli makers claim is the first fictional feature film ever to be shot in the city.

The city has become a byword for some of the sharpest tensions on the West Bank. It is the only West Bank city where Jewish settlers live in the midst of Palestinians.

The plot of Graduation is slender: it tells the story of a young Palestinian woman called Ayat, who is played by 23-year-old actress Yousra Barakat.

Ayat is attempting to reach her college graduation on the night of the Jewish festival of Purim. The Palestinians in the centre of the city are under curfew, so that the Jewish settlers can hold their Purim parade - a wild whirligig of coloured lights, loud music, fancy dress and feverish dancing.

I wanted to make the smallest story I could possibly tell, so that people could identify with it, but also say to themselves, 'This is really crazy, how can people live like this?' But yet this is the routine
Yaelle Kayam
Director

Ayat decides, along with her younger brother, to break the curfew. Theirs is an attempted journey past roadblocks, sealed entrances and checkpoints, and past soldiers and settlers.

The film's director is Yaelle Kayam, a 28-year-old from Tel Aviv and graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem.

"I wanted to make the smallest story I could possibly tell," she says, "so that people could identify with it, but also say to themselves, 'This is really crazy, how can people live like this?' But yet this is the routine."

Ms Kayam believes that the majority of people in Israel are "not aware at all" about what life is like for Palestinians in Hebron, or how the settlers behave.

She says that when she showed friends in Tel Aviv some of the earlier material she had shot, from the Purim parade, they thought that it had all been staged.

'Not allowed'

We watched rehearsals under a baking September sun, during Ramadan.

From the rooftop, where the actors were peering at the imaginary parade beneath, there was a clear view of the streams of men pouring towards the Ibrahim Mosque.

Director Yaelle Kayam
Kayam wants her film to increase awareness of restrictions in Hebron

Hebron is the West Bank's largest city, home to 160,000 Palestinians. Dotted through the centre of the city are the few hundred Jewish settlers, guarded by several hundred Israeli soldiers.

It is the presence of these settlers that has turned Hebron into a patchwork of internal checkpoints and closures.

From the material already shot by Yaelle Kayam and her Israeli crew, one of the most arresting, almost other-worldly scenes, shows Yusra watching, from the caged first-floor balcony of a Palestinian house, the Purim parade below.

In real life, the house belongs to Zlika Muhtaseb, a 46-year-old teacher, and life-long resident of Hebron.

As with all the houses along this street, Zlika's balcony is enclosed in a stout metal mesh to guard against the stone-throwing from young settlers. She says that, in any case, she is rarely allowed out on to the street which her home overlooks.

"It was the main street in Hebron, connecting the north with the south," she said. "But the settlers said that Palestinians shouldn't use it, because of security."

She last used the door onto Shuhada Street more than a month ago. At the roundabout 200m from her house, she was stopped by a soldier.

"He was surprised to see me. 'Where did you come from?' he said. I showed him my house. He said: 'You're not allowed to use this street. Go back.'

"I showed him my permit. He said: 'It's not valid. It does not apply here.' I asked him where I should use it. He said: 'I don't know, it doesn't apply here.'"

Welded shut

Zlika does have another doorway she can use, but it takes her on a much longer detour, through several more checkpoints, to get to where she wants to go.

Tim Franks, on the roof of the house
The Qafisha family must cross to a neighbour's roof to go outside

At least she does have another entrance. That is an improvement over the Qafisha family, who live a short walk away, and whose house has also been the site for some of the filming.

Five years ago, their only door to the street was welded shut by the Israeli army. Since then, the 10 members of the family - from grandparents to grandchildren - have a rather more complicated route to the outside.

They have to ascend uneven, switchback stone steps, stooping to avoid the ceiling, in order to reach their roof. There they cross through a ragged hole in an outside wall on to their neighbours' roof.

They then make their way down a series of steep stairways to the neighbouring doorway.

The older women of the family say that they have been left depressed and sometimes injured by the ordeal of just coming and going from their home.

Graduation is due to premiere next April. It is a work of fiction. But only just.





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