In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: HBO Documentary Films, Priddy Brothers, ‘To Die in Jerusalem’

Hilla Medalia was a first-time filmmaker, looking for a topic to fulfill her master’s degree requirements, when she set out to make what ultimately became “To Die in Jerusalem.” Getting the film on the air took five years, as Ms. Medalia wound her way through the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the vagaries of documentary funding, but she ended up in a highly coveted spot on HBO.

While a film student at Southern Illinois University, Ms. Medalia, who is Israeli, would tell her friends about the Middle East conflict. When it came time to make a final film for her degree, she said, she wanted to tackle the topic, but through “a personal story that people can identify.” And she wanted “a platform for dialogue within the film and outside the film, as well.”

Then came a March 29, 2002, suicide bombing at a Jerusalem supermarket. The cover of Newsweek spoke volumes: side-by-side pictures of Ayat al-Akhras, the 18-year-old Palestinian who set off the bomb, and her victim, 17-year-old Rachel Levy, so alike they could have been sisters.

Soon Ms. Medalia, now 30, was filming the mothers of the girls, Avigail Levy in Jerusalem and Abu and Um Samir al-Akhras in the Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem, for “Daughters of Abraham,” which won the 2004 Angelus Award at the Angelus student film festival.

But the topic had more potential; Ms. Levy wanted to meet the mother of her daughter’s killer and Ms. Medalia said she thought she could make it happen.

John and Ed Priddy, Boise entrepreneurs who had made money in the nutritional supplement business, were longtime Angelus supporters. They came in as funders for what they hoped would be a feature documentary and brought it to the attention of HBO’s documentary president, Sheila Nevins.

Coincidentally, Ms. Nevins had seen the same Newsweek cover, but the film she wanted never got off the ground. She came on board for Ms. Medalia’s documentary.

As the film recounts, getting the two mothers to meet in person proved impossible. In what becomes a powerful metaphor for the larger standoff, the women lived just four miles from each other, but were kept apart by cultural taboos, visa restrictions brought about by war and plain fear. After years of trying for a personal encounter, the two women met for four hours by satellite in what turned out to be a tense, sad, sometimes angry exchange that did not result in reconciliation.

The film has proved to be a powerful springboard for dialogue, however, as Ms. Medalia hoped.
Since its October HBO airing, she has been “living in airplanes and airports” as the film has been screened worldwide, in Hong Kong, South Africa, on numerous U.S. campuses and across Europe.

At the beginning of June, it aired on Israeli TV, which Ms. Medalia called “a big achievement.” Later in the summer it’s expected to air across the Arab world, on a Middle East Broadcasting Center channel.

After every screening, she said, viewers “really want to talk about the conflict and what can we do about it.”

Ms. Medalia is working on “After the Storm,” about Broadway musicians who traveled to New Orleans to work with kids on a production of “Once on This Island.” Rosie O’Donnell and the Priddy brothers are on board as producers.