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Hot House, a documentary about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, was awarded a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival. With a tremendous amount of competition from the 14 other contenders in the category, Hot House still stood out among the rest. It was screened at Sundance four times to overbooked houses, with many turned away at the door. Tonight, Israeli viewers will be able to see what all the buzz is about when the film airs on Channel 1 at 9:40pm.
The film, whose creators had the opportunity to meet the highest security Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, examines the development of hierarchies and societies within prison walls. It reveals a prison system that acts more as a organizational center for crime than a location of meaningful reform.
And prison life eventually spreads its influence into society on the outside. This influence reaches its peak during the historic Palestinian parliament elections that brought Hamas to power in 2006.
The film shows prisoners following the elections and discussing the results. Given that the prisons have their own hierarchies and even elections among different factions (a system the wardens found makes riots and breakouts less likely), it's no wonder that politics are a point of interest.
"This film gives one of a kind access to a place, a situation and a people that Israelis - and the world - have never seen," producer Arik Bernstein tells The Jerusalem Post. "Some of our subjects are serving 10 and 16- year life sentences...One woman who has four children is serving 5 life sentences."
Among the prisoners featured in Hot House are Hassan Yussouf, the head of Hamas in the West Bank, who was elected to Parliament from his jail cell; Abu Naji, who has been locked up for over 24 years; and Ahlam Tamimi, the female Hamas leader who has been sentenced to 16 life sentences for her part in the planning and execution of the Sbarro attack in Jerusalem.
Some of the footage will be chilling for many Israelis personally affected by terror. In one scene of startling simplicity, a woman is asked if she knows how many children died in a suicide bombing she helped execute.
After guessing too low, she is told the real number. She silently looks at the camera, unwilling to remove the smile on her face. The prison seems full of like-minded individuals who show no remorse or intention of changing their ways.
The experience of being locked up in an Israeli prison has in itself been turned into a badge of pride for many Palestinians, and as Hot House reveals, the prisons have become academies of Palestinian nationalism.
They shape the minds of the prisoners, and also provide a necessary step on their way to Palestinian leadership. There are 10,000 Palestinians behind bars in Israel today, and according to producer Bernstein and director Shimon Dotan, the leaders of the future Palestinian state are developing among them.
"Besides providing a rare look into the Israeli jail system, the film the audience two new understandings: one is why and how the Palestinian leadership evolves in prison, and the other is the importance of jail as a political center of power. Hot House asks why prison is such a crucial political center for Palestinian society."
As to whether or not this film will change the way Israeli prisons are run, Bernstein doesn't seem concerned. "I don't think film [as a medium] should judge. It should show a reality. This was not aimed at the jail system. The target audience is Israeli society, who I think will now have deeper understanding of the situation in our jails."