September 10, 2007

'To Die in Jerusalem' HBO to air graduate's documentary

by Pete Rosenbery


Hilla Medalia

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- What began as a thesis project nearly five years ago will soon be in the national spotlight for award-winning filmmaker and Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate Hilla Medalia.

An extensive look into the tragedy of a March 2002 suicide bomb attack that killed two 17-year-old girls — one Palestinian, the other Israeli — is the subject of her HBO documentary, "To Die in Jerusalem." The 76-minute documentary begins airing Nov. 1.

Medalia, the film's director and producer, said she feels "very fortunate" to have her first feature documentary shown on HBO because of the quality of documentaries the cable network airs.


Media Advisory

Hilla Medalia is expected to return to SIUC in early October. Reporters and photographers may arrange interviews by contacting Jan Thompson at 618/536-7555.


The film details the lives of Palestinian Ayat al-Akhras and Israeli Rachel Levy, both 17, whose paths were forever linked in a Jerusalem market on March 29, 2002. A black purse al-Akhras carried — armed with explosives — detonated, killing both girls, a security guard, and injuring 30. The film's highlight is an emotionally charged first meeting between the girls' mothers — Avigail Levy and Um Samir al-Akhras.

The film, however, is vastly different than Medalia's 2003 award-winning thesis short film, "Daughters of Abraham," which won the 2004 Angelus Award, and was shown in a special screening during the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The film included separate interviews with family members but the mothers did not meet, leaving Medalia with a feeling that the project was unfinished, she said.

Medalia also received the SIU Alumni Association's 2004 Outstanding Thesis Award for the film. After graduating from SIUC in 2004 with a master's degree in professional media practice, Medalia moved to New York. She worked as senior producer of the award-winning documentary, "39 Pounds of Love." The experience of learning and understanding different aspects in filmmaking and how the market works was invaluable, she said.

Medalia's thesis film sparked the interest of executive producers John and Ed Priddy, award-winning documentary film producers, to finance "To Die in Jerusalem."

Over the course of about a year-and-a-half, Medalia did more research and returned to Israel and the West Bank to re-shoot interviews and scenes, including the wrenching meeting between the girls' two mothers. The scene is particularly emotional for Medalia, who is an Israeli citizen, and "very close to the conflict."

"It is something I grew up with and is a really big part of me," she said. "I think it is emotional for everybody, but even more so when you are so close to the conflict."

"To Die in Jerusalem," is a more mature look at the story than her thesis project, Medalia said.

The film "is about coming together and talking about the difficulties and disagreements," she said.

"I think even though at the end of the film it doesn't necessarily give you the hope that one would like, I think it still does on different levels," Medalia said. "The fact that the two mothers sat for so long is the hope that they did want to come to some kind of understanding."

Although the two families live less than four miles from each other, there were numerous difficulties and barriers in arranging their meeting, she said.

Medalia earned her bachelor's degree in radio and television from SIUC in 2001. The department is in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.

Jan Thompson, an associate professor in radio and television, chaired Medalia's thesis committee. She recalls Medalia reading about the suicide bombing — noting the story shook up many people.

"I think it really had an impact on Hilla because I think we all question what drives somebody to this point," she said.

Thompson was supportive, but concerned and apprehensive when Medalia approached her in fall 2002 with the proposal to travel to Israel to interview the families. Two weeks later, Medalia had gained their approval — "an amazing accomplishment for a student," Thompson said.

"You want your students to be able to walk out of here with something that will help pry the door open to the next leg of their journey," she said.

Medalia's efforts — on her thesis and post-graduation — are examples of her tenacity, Thompson said. The documentary remains poignant and relevant, she said.

"This is what every faculty dreams of when they are working with students, whether it be a thesis or dissertation — it has more shelf life than just what happens here on campus," she said.

"We've been so fortunate with Hilla that her thesis was something that connected with so many different people and organizations. It is still a timely topic and is still touching a lot of people," Thompson said.

Just 30, Medalia emphasizes to young filmmakers to "really believe" in their creativity and their projects, and to fight for them. She recalls borrowing money from family and working various jobs, including carrying cameras and lights, when she first arrived in New York.

"Not everybody is going to like what you do," she said. "It's not always that you are going to hear what you want to hear. So focus, and really believe that is 'the right place for me and this is what I want to do.' "

Medalia is in post-production on a new project, "After the Storm," the story of Broadway theater professionals resurrecting a musical arts program with New Orleans' teens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

More information on "To Die In Jerusalem," is available at