Radio-television-film professor receives look at war while filming documentary

Thursday, August 3, 2006

University of North Texas faculty member Melinda Levin had planned to spend much of July gathering footage for a documentary she is creating about traditional Israeli women.

After a year and a half of research, she was prepared to interview an Ethiopian Jewish woman and two Arab Muslim women who were born and raised in Israel. All three were current or former students at Western Galilee College in Akko, Israel, where Levin had taught in 2003 through the UNT Jewish Studies Program. She had researched Israeli culture and identified her interview subjects with the help of two Western Galilee faculty members - political science professor Daphna Sharfman, a political science professor, and anthropology professor Ofra Grunberg.

Levin left for Israel on Saturday, July 8, with an assistant - Jessica Schoenbaechler, a UNT master of fine arts student in documentary filmmaking. They planned to stay three weeks at a Jewish kibbutz near Nahariya, which is five miles from the Lebanon border.

Instead, they stayed for less than a week after receiving a firsthand view of the hostilities that broke out between Israeli forces and Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah forces along the Israel-Lebanon border.

On Tuesday, July 12, Hezbollah initiated a rocket and mortar attack on northern Israel, and Levin and Schoenbaechler heard the first launches while they were loading all of their equipment in preparation for their first interview.

"We could feel the reverberations in our chests," Levin says. "At the kibbutz at night, we lay there hearing the missiles and the jets, and we made sure we knew where the bomb shelters were. The kibbutz residents initially told us that attacks like those happen all the time."

The next day - Wednesday, July 13 - Hezbollah bombarded Nahariya and Safed, as well as villages nearby, with rocket fire in response to Israel sending jets to bomb the airport near Beirut. Levin and Schoenbaechler kept shooting their film throughout the day, even though they had to pause the interviews when they heard bombs. They were unable, however, to go Karmiel, one of the most heavily bombarded Israeli towns, to interview one of Arab Muslim women chosen for the film.

But by Thursday, July 14, they knew that the situation was escalating, and they accepted an invitation by the other Arab Muslim woman to stay with her and her husband in Acco, north of Haifa, where they would be safer than the Jewish kibbutz.

"We had seen what was happening via CNN International, but once we left the kibbutz, we no longer had it," Levin says. "The Arab family was watching Hezbollah television as well as stations based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv because they wanted to get both sides of the story politically. Hezbollah television showed the carnage in Beirut, and Jerusalem TV also showed horrific images of what was happening in northern Israel."

Western Galilee College, she says, closed on July 12, "and the critical staff began working out of bomb shelters."

"Many of those that I hired to work on our film and the people who are the subjects of the documentary are now hunkered in bomb shelters," she says.

On Friday, July 14, Levin and Schoenbaechler found a driver to take them south to Tel Aviv, where they left for the United States after Levin's brother secured airline tickets for them. They arrived back in Texas on Sunday, July 16.

"I thought the conflict would only last for one day," Levin says. "The goal was to shoot the entire film in three weeks, then go through the footage during this coming academic year and return to Israel next May for additional shooting. Right now, I only have six hours of footage, including some of the war footage. It's not enough for the film I want to do."

Levin says she originally planned to create "an observatory documentary and social study about the lives of Israeli women."

"Israel is a very interesting contradiction. Much of it is Westernized, but very traditional cultures, such as Jewish Orthodoxy and Islam, are embedded within it. One of the women I am interviewing will be traditional in her marriage, but is breaking new ground in pursuing higher education," she says.

With the onset of war during the filming, Levin says the documentary may have a different approach and include war footage. She will seek funding to return to Israel next summer, adding that she lost the money spent to rent lodging and pay staff members for three weeks of shooting when she had to return to the U.S.

"My goal is to go back and finish this film," she says.

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