April 04, 2008

SIUC graduate wins major filmmaking honors

by Pete Rosenbery

Hilla Medaliamedium

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate Hilla Medalia, already an award-winning filmmaker, continues to earn national and international recognition.

Medalia's documentary, "To Die in Jerusalem," captured honors in both the United States and France this week.

The film earned a George Foster Peabody Award on Tuesday, one of 35 recipients judged to be the best in electronic media for 2007, according to event organizers. The award "recognizes distinguished achievement and meritorious public service by stations, networks, producing organizations and individuals." Documentaries, network specials, entertainment series, and local television news programs are among this year's recipients from more than 1,000 total entries. The 67th annual awards luncheon is June 16 in New York City.

In addition, the 76-minute documentary also captured the grand prize at the Sixth International Human Rights Film Festival earlier this week in Paris. The two awards follow the film winning a jury award at the 21st annual International Festival of Audiovisual Programs in Biarritz, France, earlier this year.

"The primary criterion for the Peabody Awards is excellence. The international awards indicate that Hilla is making a difference in our society," said John A. Koropchak, SIUC's vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate school. "There's not much more that we can ask of our Saluki alums than to be excellent at what they do and make a difference."

The documentary aired throughout world, including on HBO in November. The film will also air in many other countries, including in Israel and throughout the Arab world. It is a heart-wrenching look into the tragedy of a March 2002 suicide bomb attack that killed two 17-year-old girls — one Palestinian, the other Israeli — and resulted in an emotion-filled meeting between the girls' mothers more than four years later.

Winning the awards is "a great honor and a big encouragement to keep working hard," said Medalia, who earned a bachelor's degree in radio and television from SIUC in 2001, and a master's degree in professional media practice in 2004.

One of the more gratifying aspects of the film is seeing people's reactions after they watch the documentary, Medalia said.

"After watching the film, people cannot ignore it and the result is the film sparks a dialogue," she said.

Medalia, who is an Israeli citizen, hopes the dialogue contributes "to a more open and peaceful relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a clearer international understanding of their situation."

Her film began as a thesis project while Medalia was at SIUC. She read about the March 29, 2002, suicide bombing in a Jerusalem market where the lives of Palestinian Ayat al-Akhras and Israeli Rachel Levy would become forever linked. Explosives that al-Akhras carried in a black purse detonated, killing both girls, a security guard and injuring 30.

In 2003, Medalia completed her winning thesis short film, "Daughters of Abraham." The film won the 2004 Angelis Award and aired in a special screening during the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The film included separate interviews with the girls' family members, but the mothers did not meet. The families live less than four miles apart.

Medalia's thesis film sparked interest from award-winning documentary filmmakers John and Ed Priddy to finance "To Die In Jerusalem." Over the next year and a half, Medalia did more research and returned to Israel and the West Bank to re-shoot interviews and scenes, and this time, the first meeting, via video link, of the girls' mothers, Avigail Levy and Um Samir Al-Akhras.

Medalia admits that during the filming, she did not believe the documentary's impact would be as great as it is.

"In fact, I think all I really was trying to do is to tell my friends in Southern Illinois about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," she said. "I was hoping it maybe will air, but I never imagined it will take me all over the world and that more than two million people will watch the film."

Koropchak recalls when Medalia proposed "this ambitious project," which resulted in the 2004 Outstanding Thesis Award and other early honors.

"It is extremely gratifying to me and SIUC to see Hill achieve this success and recognition, which are testaments to the excellent faculty mentoring and opportunities that we provide to students," he said. "Hilla's success can be an inspiration for all SIUC students, demonstrating that they can compete with the best, anywhere!"

Jan Thompson, an associate professor in radio-television, chaired Medalia's thesis committee.

"This is a tremendous accomplishment for one of our recent graduates," she said.

The film is now available on DVD at http://www.todieinjerusalem.com/

Medalia's latest documentary project, "After the Storm," is under editing in New York. The film is the story of Broadway theater professionals resurrecting a musical arts program for teens in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Medalia hopes the film is finished by August. Rosie O'Donnell joined the film team as another executive producer, she said.