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Sonia Nettnin Film Review: Visit Palestine

Film Review: Visit Palestine

By Sonia Nettnin At The Chicago Palestine Film Festival

Photo courtesy of

The documentary, "Visit Palestine" takes viewers through the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin, West Bank with international peace activist Caoimhe Butterly.

With blue eyes, long, red hair and red lipstick, Butterly, who is over six-feet-tall stands out in Jenin, also known as the camp of endurance. For over a year Butterly lived in Jenin and she helped the people dig up the dead after the 2002 Israeli invasion of the camp, Operation Defensive Shield. In October 2002 Director Katie Barlow filmed Butterly, who is loved by many people in the camp because she provided them with emotional and psychological support. Butterly walks children to school because they are scared of Israeli tanks.

Although some Westerners think activists are "lunatics" for standing in front of Israeli soldiers and tanks as human shields, Butterly explains that it is an uncomfortable dynamic because the occupation is an unnatural situation. She explains that she uses her presence on the ground to minimize the brutality against the Palestinians, who are often demonized, dehumanized and criminalized in Western media. Butterly is a compassionate and caring person who feels an obligation to help people suffering under the weight of oppression; and she says the amount and degree of pain experienced by the Palestinian people would break most human beings.

When Israeli forces declared a curfew, Butterly brought bread to homes so the people had food to eat. Keep in mind curfews can last for weeks at a time, so what do families do if they cannot leave the house? When vendors stand in the streets of the marketplace they risk their lives. In honor of her courageous, selfless work Butterly received Time Magazine's 2003 European Hero Award.

In November 2002 an Israeli tank shot Butterly's left leg, which resulted in a one-month hospital stay. The incident received world press coverage because she is an international. As Butterly points out an eleven-year-old child was killed that day, but only human rights reports provided coverage of her death. During her recovery people from Jenin and in neighboring villages visited Butterly, who often visited patients when they were injured as well.

Whenever tanks invade the camp, children run and seek refuge, or they run to throw stones at the tanks. One twelve-year-old boy stood in front of a tank and threw a stone. Inside the tank the soldier shot the boy and split-open his head.

"Sometimes when we go to school there are tanks that come and shoot at us," one girl says. "In my heart there is no more future...because each generation here just gets killed." She says the people live in a jail even though Israeli leadership tells the world that the State of Israel is a democracy.

Another girl said that Butterly helped them go to school. "We love her alot...when they (the children) were afraid she made them brave." Butterly describes education as an act of resistance for the Palestinians because they risk their lives participating in daily-life activities.

A teenage boy shows a scar on his neck. One day he was on his way to the store when a tank opened fire on him. The bullet shot straight through his neck, which could have killed him or paralyzed him. One night while a boy named Yusuf slept on the roof of his home an Israeli helicopter flew overhead and shot him several times. His mother narrates the tragedy at his grave site, where many orphaned children spend their time walking around the graves of family members and friends. Children wear necklaces holding photographs of dead family members. When boys and girls hear a tank rolling nearby they run off. Another young man talks about his late friend Nidal who was on his way to school when a sniper riddled him with bullets. "I saw it with my own eyes," he adds. Before they reached the hospital, Nidal bled to death.

"I want my children to go to the school free, come back to the school free," one father says. Butterly shares that since September 2000 over 2,800 Palestinian children have been wounded on their journeys to and from school, and at least five children have been killed in their classrooms.

In one scene, Butterly is walking with a woman and her daughter from the market when a tank invades the street. They have to seek cover, otherwise they may get shot or be subjected to tear gas. Film footage from previous scenes shows children running from tear gas. A mother talks about how the people have to prepare for their childrens' deaths. "If you are dead, at least you rest. But we die a hundred deaths every day," she adds.

Palestinians live with the fear that the next time the tanks come back they will kill a family member or friend. They try to prepare themselves so when it does happen the shock does not break them. Unfortunately the late Hanadi Jaradat, a 29-year-old woman never got over the killing of her 18-year-old brother Fadi. She witnessed his murder and as her mother explained, it broke Hanadi. Several months later she blew herself up in Haifa and killed 20 people. Later that night Israeli forces demolished the Jaradat's home. The mother explains that a parent would never sacrifice their son or daughter. After the tragic events Butterly explains that Western media focuses on the suicide bombings but there is a lack of contextualization. The every-day killings of Palestinians are not reported in Western media, which results in distorted perceptions of the Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Butterly questions the use of the word "conflict" in the media because it denotes two balanced sides engaged in warfare, but the footage in the Palestinian refugee camp shows otherwise. Barlow explores the circumstances surrounding the ongoing violence.

Butterly volunteered to help paramedics retrieve the injured. In one scene a man was shot while riding his bicycle. She retrieves the bicycle while the paramedics put the man in the ambulance. Scenes of Butterly in the hospital show her providing support to families in their times of need. One woman talks about how Butterly was there for her when her mother was killed. She considers Butterly her sister and loves her very much. These sentiments are shared in the camp. Whenever the children see Butterly they surround her. People kiss and hug her, feed her and she stays in their homes. This side of the Palestinian people - the generosity and hospitality - is absent from Western media. Keep in mind many of the people live in poverty. Even if viewers disagree with Butterly's opinions, they can experience the social and humanitarian dimensions of the film.

In the US the phrase, "war of ideas" has been raised in current, political discussions. When it involves Americans' perceptions of Palestinians, the media has not been reporting the Palestinian reality. Why? Beliefs, power and greed drive the actions.

In terms of constructive feedback I would say that in some scenes there was extraneous narration. Although it is helpful to give context to a scene, it is more effective for the images to speak themselves. For instance to say that Ali the journalist "challenges the occupation by deconstructing myths with the truth and power of images," is unnecessary because viewers never see any of his photographs. Narration tells people what to see in the reality but images show people the reality. The interviews with the people, especially the children are powerful.

No matter what peoples' perceptions are of the Palestinians, "Visit Palestine" is unforgettable.


-U.S. journalist and film critic Sonia Nettnin writes about social, political, economic, and cultural issues. Her focus is the Middle East.

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