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Theater thrives in Gaza, despite restrictions

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"Theater is a powerful tool of expression," says Abdelfattah Abu-Srour, the dynamic unpaid director of the troupe. "It allows the children to manage and release all the anger, frustration, and pressure they live under, and to deliver their message in a peaceful, nonviolent, and civilized way. It also shows them how educating themselves in different fields is vital, and that they can't build their country by fighting in the streets."

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Through touring, the children have also learned that not everyone sees them as terrorists and suicide bombers, something they were afraid of before they left. "Yesterday," says Mr. Abu-Srour, "we were invited into an American Jewish house for dinner. Everyone was hugging each other. When people look at each other as human beings, all barriers disappear and people respect others regardless of their differences. The children have learned that the 'other' isn't necessarily the 'enemy.' " Coming from a home where the 30-foot high security wall slices their camp in two, and military incursions have been fierce and frequent, this broader perspective is crucial for the children of Aida, as well as for audiences.

But theater is not the only medium through which dramatic communication with an international audience is being channeled. A revival of Palestinian cinema is now slowly gaining ground. Qattan is funding 28 aspiring Palestinian filmmakers to pursue study in Jordan with the goal of producing an all-Palestinian feature film. Forty-five educational "cinema clubs" are also being established in Palestinian schools throughout Gaza and the West Bank. It's estimated that about 80 percent of Palestinian children have never been to a movie theater. All cinemas, except for a scant few in Ramallah, were closed by the Israeli military at the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, and none have reopened.

Documentary filmmaking, too, is becoming more widespread amongst Palestinians. The young filmmakers at Balata Refugee Camp, near Nablus, disseminate their films on the Internet, attracting millions of viewers despite being unable to go beyond the camp's perimeters. While none of the filmmakers in the Balata Film Collective - many of whom are young women - has received professional training, their documentaries make compelling viewing as they often tackle hard-hitting themes. In one film, leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade talk about how it feels to be the most wanted men in the occupied territories. Speaking candidly and with emotion, they deal with subjects ranging from their constant fear of assassination, to their close relationships with their mothers. In another harrowing short documentary, recently released female Palestinian security prisoners from the Balata Camp describe their terror at being detained in Israeli jails.

A recent Arab film festival took place in various improvised locations, though none of the films - this year, at least - are Palestinian-made. Downtown, in his small office, Sami Abu Salem is already hard at work on next year's theater festival. "Next year, after the disengagement, we hope it will be easier for international groups to join us," he says optimistically. "But until then, we're just intent on [pulling] Palestinian citizens away from the atmosphere of killing, bloodshed, and bombardment, to a new atmosphere: one of life, entertainment, and love."

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