Page last updated at 06:33 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 07:33 UK

Cancer trauma inspires Palestinian film


The story told in Fatenah is based on a true case

By Mohammed Harmassi
BBC Arabic

A woman from Gaza stands at an Israeli check-point. We can only see her back but it is clear that in shame she opens her top to a female Israeli soldier to show that her breasts have been removed in an attempt to beat cancer. Despite this, she is refused entry to Israel on security grounds.

This is the climactic scene from the first major Palestinian attempt at an animated movie and it is based on a true story.

But this is not an anti-Israeli rant.

There are good and bad characters on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

The heroine of the movie is called Fatenah.

She is a Gazan woman whose dream of finding love and leading a normal life is torn apart by cancer and the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

"Usually Palestinians are treated as numbers, but this is not the case here," said Saed Andoni, the film's producer. "Behind each number there is a long story and that is why we focus on this one individual."

True story

The animation tells of Fatenah's fight against cancer; the removal of both her breasts, Palestinian doctors who delayed her diagnosis and Israeli soldiers who delayed her treatment.

It also tells of a rare friendship between the Gazan and an Israeli woman, Dafna.

The animation is threaded together by a love story between Fatenah and a Gazan man.

The depiction of the impoverished coastal strip is condensed into harshly coloured scenes in the 30-minute animation; an Israeli checkpoint, crowded buildings and the sea.

Fatenah has large eyes and a small mouth - symbolic of a woman "compelled to a bitter existence but not empowered to speak", says director Ahmad Habash.

Fatenah's struggle and friendship with an Israeli woman is based on the real-life story of a Gazan woman named Fatma.

Fatenah shows one woman's lonely battle to get treatment for breast cancer

Her fight against breast cancer was told by the Israeli group "Physicians for Human Rights" in a 2005 report after the disease killed her.

"The report was so unbelievable, that when you read it you feel like it is fiction. It is absurd. You cannot believe that these things happen even though we as Palestinians live in this situation," says Mr Andoni.

Health care in Gaza is poor - a legacy of poor training, corruption and shabby equipment.

A blockade tightened after militant group Hamas seized power of Gaza in June 2007 has sealed people in, and kept many medical supplies out.

But Israel says it continues to allow in humanitarian goods despite the blockade.

Seriously ill residents must find treatment in Egypt, Israel, or cross from there to the West Bank or Jordan.

But it can take weeks for Palestinian bureaucrats to organise referrals and for Israel to approve entry.

Physicians for Human Rights says 12 residents have died unnecessarily from their illnesses after Israeli officials refused their applications to enter since Hamas took power.

Aggressive cancer

In 2004, 28-year-old Fatma felt a lump in her breast - Palestinian doctors said her cure was in having children or switching bras.

Months later they diagnosed aggressive cancer but refused to make a referral for her to be treated in Israel.

Fatma defiantly sent her medical report to an Israeli hospital where doctors said she needed immediate care.

Israeli activists lobbied defence officials to allow her to enter Israel, but she was frequently delayed and turned back by soldiers.

Sometimes, her ambulance was forced to return to Gaza because of fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.

The report says the climatic scene in 'Fatenah,' where she is ordered to disrobe before an Israeli woman soldier took place in real-life in September 2004.

Fatenah struggles with Palestinian and Israeli bureaucracies

In the animation, Fatenah's back is to the camera, but she ashamedly reveals a bare shoulder, suggesting she is naked under her long Muslim robe.

In reality, Fatma wore a tee-shirt and a stuffed bra because her breasts were removed to try to halt the cancer.

She was lying on the floor because she was too weak to stand, and an Israeli soldier yelled at her to dress.

The report said she was then sent back into Gaza for failing a security check.

Sullied reputation

The film makers are at pains to say the animation is inspired by Fatma's story, but it isn't about her.

That nuance was lost in deeply conservative Gaza, where Fatma's family say it has sullied their deceased daughter's reputation because of Fatenah's innocent romance - there isn't any kissing or hand-holding - and the brief scene where her animated breast is shown in the movie.

The film took almost two years to make in the West Bank city of Ramallah on a budget of $60,000 (£36,400) provided by the World Health Organisation.

It will be sent to film festivals around the world and Mr Andoni said he hopes it lays the foundation for what will become a burgeoning Palestinian animation industry.

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