Death be not proud

The mother of a suicide bomber and her Israeli victim go under the lens in 'To Die in Jerusalem'.

hbo terror film 88 298 (photo credit: HBO Documentary / Priddy Brothers)
hbo terror film 88 298
(photo credit: HBO Documentary / Priddy Brothers)
The mothers of a suicide bomber and her Israeli victim go under the lens in 'To Die in Jerusalem,' a documentary premiering Wednesday at the Jerusalem Film Festival It was an attack that stood out even during the deadliest month of the second intifada. Rachel Levy, a high school student with big eyes and dark hair, was running an errand for her mother at a Jerusalem supermarket when another teenager, an engaged Palestinian girl named Ayat al-Akhras, pushed past the store's security guard and detonated an explosive device strapped to her chest, killing herself, the guard and Levy. Levy's head remained intact, but forensic pathologists struggled to figure out which of the other body parts belonged to whom. More than five years later, the gruesome bloodletting of that rainy afternoon serves as the starting point of To Die in Jerusalem, a documentary premiering Wednesday evening at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Though the girls themselves shared much of the western media coverage in the days after the attack - Newsweek put the two side by side on its cover - the documentary focuses instead on their mothers, and opens six months after the bombing, when Abigail Levy, the Israeli girl's mother, began a multiple-year campaign to meet Um Samir al-Akhras, the mother of her daughter's killer. The resulting film, scheduled for broadcast later this year on HBO, offers a rare, worthwhile and none too encouraging look at the family of the Palestinian "martyr," an ambitious young woman with an interest in journalism and parents who, at least at times, speak with regret about their daughter's death. "Had I known [about the impending attack], I would have stopped her, even with force," Um Samir al-Akhras says. In another film, Abigail Levy's open-minded, counterintuitive impulse to reach out to the al-Akhrases would have dominated viewers' attention. Like Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a dead U.S. soldier in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Levy gives the documentary its emotional core, and should have an impact even on those firmly opposed to the actions of her government. Viewers may feel their chests tighten up when Levy momentarily loses control late in the film. But the stars of To Die in Jerusalem are inevitably members of the al-Akhras family, the closest the film can get to conveying the environment in which 17-year-old Ayat's deadly final act took shape. "I always teach my children to love others," says Abu Samir al-Akhras, the dead girl's father. But, of course, there's a but. "Unfortunately," he continues, "occupation practices like killings, demolitions and imprisonments have changed the way [Palestinian] boys and girls think." And so we arrive at the key contradiction - and psychological insight - of To Die in Jerusalem, which features a mother and father simultaneously mourning and expressing pride over their daughter's murderous end. The al-Akhrases cannot admit the injustice of Rachel Levy's murder, a Palestinian Christian minister tells Abigail Levy, because doing so would be to concede that their own daughter's final act was, at the very least, morally problematic. The al-Akhras family thus finds itself in the same trap as too many other Palestinians, those gripped by a logic that basically boils down to "anything goes, because we're desperate/poor/suffering." (Their case isn't helped here by footage showing Abu Samir al-Akhras looking at digital photos on the family computer and cleaning out his Audi.) The looseness and laziness of that kind of moral thinking returns again and again in interviews with the al-Akhras parents. "Each person," the father says at one point, "resists the occupation in his own way, some with bullets, by words or with art," as though all three tactics were the same. What's probably scariest about To Die in Jerusalem is that Um Samir al-Akhras goes on the attack - just like her daughter - precisely at the moment she's faced with the fundamental humanity of her Israeli counterpart. A look of uncertainty passes briefly over the woman's face as she catches her first glimpse of Abigail Levy, but she soon puts any self-doubt aside, laying into the Israeli mother for the Zionists' purported crimes. (In an outrageous irony seemingly lost on the Palestinian mother, she plays the part of victim earlier in the film in explaining that she can't meet Abigail Levy in Jerusalem because of villainous Israeli checkpoints - the very checkpoints kept in place to keep people like her daughter out of Israeli supermarkets.) The scene between the mothers is rare, remarkable and ugly - how often in life does a terror victim's mother get the chance to be shouted at by the mother of the killer? Because To Die in Jerusalem is ultimately about Abigail Levy's desire to understand Ayat and Um Samir al-Akhras, the Palestinians in the film - who also include would-be bombers at an Israeli women's prison - get more opportunities to present their case. The film's Israeli director, Hilla Medalia, studiously includes several views from the Israeli side, but what will stick with many viewers is not Abigail Levy's goodness or pragmatism so much as the al-Akhras family's seemingly invincible sense of victimhood, rage and moral relativism. ("She's a victim, I'm a victim. What can mothers do?" Um Samir asks in one of her more conciliatory moments.) The al-Akhras parents credibly claim not to have known their daughter's whereabouts on the day of her death, but on the day of Ayat's funeral, the "mourning room" is disturbed by her sister, who channels her emotional turmoil into a rather memorable burst of nihilistic fury, a tantrum that reaches its climax with screams for the deaths of 30 more Israelis. This, the parents can see, but it, too, can presumably be written off as a legitimate expression of "resistance." To Die in Jerusalem is devastating, in its own hands-off way, letting its subjects speak for themselves and refusing to wrap things up with a reassuringly upbeat ending. Rachel Levy and Ayat al-Akhras, the film notes, spent their high school years barely four miles apart. Five years after their deaths, their mothers continue to inhabit separate universes.