Forgiven but Not Forgotten

Israeli filmmaker Yulie Gerstel sets about terminating the prison sentence for Fahad Mihyi, a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, 22 years after he shot her during a terrorist attack in London, U.K.
October 1, 2002

Project: My Terrorist

Description: Israeli filmmaker Yulie Gerstel sets about terminating the prison sentence for Fahad Mihyi, a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, 22 years after he shot her during a terrorist attack in London, U.K.

Executive producer: Esther van Messel, First Hand Films (Switzerland)

Producer/director: Cohen Gerstel Productions (Israel), Yulie Gerstel

Coproducers: Cohen Gerstel Productions (Israel), Channel 8 (Israel), BBC (U.K.), ZDF/ARTE (Germany) YLE TV2 (Finland), TV 2 (Denmark)

Budget: 300,000 euros (US$293,000)

Yulie Gerstel first met Fahad Mihyi when she was a flight attendant with Israel’s El Al airlines. After a routine trip to London, U.K. ‘s Heathrow airport in August 1978, Gerstel and her colleagues jumped aboard an El Al bus and drove towards the Europa Hotel, where they were booked to stay while in the city. Mihyi, a Palestinian freedom fighter, made sure they never reached their destination. He used a machine gun and hand grenades to attack the crew, ultimately killing a female flight attendant and wounding three others, one of whom was Gerstel.

Mihyi was caught fleeing the scene and stood trial in the U.K. Gerstel, who was 22 years old at the time of the attack, was a witness for the prosecution. Mihyi was convicted of murder, attempted murder, possession of firearms and possession of explosives with the intent to kill, for which he received four life sentences.

Twenty-two years later, peace between Palestine and Israel seemed plausible. In particular, the Middle East peace summit scheduled to take place in July 2000 at Camp David in the U.S. (between then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat), held promise for reconciliation. ‘The era was very hopeful,’ remembers Gerstel. ‘I became close friends with some Palestinians. One day, while sitting in a room with these friends, I started to think about Fahad Mihyi. I thought if he came into the room, I wouldn’t know it was him. That’s when I decided to look for him.’

At first, Gerstel thought Mihyi might have been released under an amnesty of the 1993 Oslo accord, because the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had claimed responsibility for the attack in London. However, she soon traced him to Dartmoor prison in the U.K. On July 19, 2000, she wrote him a letter: ‘Fahad, salaam. How are you doing? What is your day like? Do you read newspapers? Are you aware of the Camp David Summit with Arafat, Barak and Clinton? I have been trying to figure out what happened to you and to the Palestinians that turned

us into enemies. I am a sixth-generation-born Israeli. My great-great-grandfather came to Palestine from Algeria in the early 19th century. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Why did you join the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine? Sincerely, Yulie.’

The letter began a correspondence between Gerstel and Mihyi. She discovered he had been disowned by both his family and the PFLP, and felt lonely and deserted. He had since turned away from political violence and expressed remorse for his actions two decades earlier. In time, she decided to help him get released.

Given the political movements between Palestine and Israel, Gerstel, now an established filmmaker in Israel, decided to produce a documentary about her renewed relationship with Mihyi. ‘The journey was initially meant to be a reconciliation encounter,’ says Gerstel. ‘I thought that if Barak and Arafat could shake hands and reach an agreement at Camp David, then I could

forgive ‘my’ terrorist. Later, when the intifada started in October 2000 and terror attacks followed, I had more and more dramatic elements in this journey.’ She continues, ‘In a few days’ time, I became a traitor. My belief in reconciliation, which was a real opportunity in September 2000, became a subversive act in October.’

July 2000: Israeli filmmaker Yulie Gerstel begins filming for My Terrorist.

October 2000: A seminar is held in Haifa, Israel. The event seeks to educate independent filmmakers on the needs of the market. Gerstel attends and is impressed by distributor Esther van Messel of First Hand Films in Switzerland, who is leading the seminar, and decides to approach her about handling My Terrorist. She tells van Messel about the project, then hands her a newspaper article about her quest to free Mihyi and asks van Messel to read it. Recalls van Messel, ‘I read Hebrew, but not fluently, so I got this newspaper and I thought, ‘Yeah, like I’m going to read this.’ But, Yulie was very professional in her follow-up and approach. ‘

Van Messel eventually reads the article and is taken by the story. ‘It looked risky: She was a producer/director filming herself in a story about herself. Everything can go wrong,’ says van Messel. ‘But, the way she approached me was so constructive.’

Although Gerstel has a preliminary budget of 250,000 euros ($243,000) for the film (which is slightly lower than the final figure), she has no idea how it will end. Even so, van Messel decides to pick it up for international distribution. In January 2001, van Messel signs Gerstel to a pre-sale agreement that gives First Hand Films exclusive representation of My Terrorist for a limited time. ‘I was working on a commission base and did not put any money up front,’ explains van Messel.

November/December 2000: Gerstel submits a proposal for the film to Channel 8 in Israel and is later invited to do a presentation for final selection. Commissioning editor Sinai Abt likes the story, but is concerned about the budget. The channel can only commit $60,000, so how will Gerstel complete the funding? Abt eventually signs Channel 8 as a coproducer.

Gerstel also applies to the Soros Documentary Fund in New York, U.S. (now the Sundance Documentary Fund), requesting financial assistance.

April 2001: Gerstel pitches My Terrorist at the Israel Forum for International Documentary Coproductions in Tel Aviv. Response around the table is positive, but cautious. ‘People thought it was risky,’ remembers Gerstel. ‘They said it sounded like a good story, but you couldn’t tell if having the producer, director and main protagonist as the same person would work.’

Nonetheless, Nick Fraser, commissioning editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand, and Rudy Buttignol, head of docs, drama and network at TVOntario in Canada, commit to the project shortly after the forum. Fraser brings about 79,000 euros ($77,000) to the table, and it’s agreed that two versions of the doc will be made, an English one for the international market, and a Hebrew one for the Israeli market. ‘The picture is the same, but the text differs slightly,’ explains van Messel. ‘There are some things that are very detailed for the Israeli audience that don’t need to be for an international audience.’

Buttignol offers approximately $10,000 towards the budget, but van Messel reveals that a contract wasn’t signed, nor was the money proffered for more then a year.

Diane Weyermann of the Soros Doc Fund is also in attendance. She likes the pitch and asks Gerstel to submit a revised proposal to the foundation, as well as tapes of her previous work. Soros eventually contributes about $15,000 to the film.

Summer 2001: Shooting continues, but Gerstel is unable to film inside the prison. ‘Nobody can film inside a British prison unless it’s a case of injustice, which this was not,’ explains Gerstel. The filmmaker also contacted some of the Israeli victims of the 1978 attack, but nobody would cooperate with her. She decides not to contact the British victims.

Neither setback proves limiting to the project. This is partly due to a slight change in focus that results from the feedback received at the forum. ‘It became apparent that the actual story of the film was not the freeing of the terrorist,’ explains van Messel. Instead, it was a story about how Gerstel’s expression of patriotism evolved from her being a member of the Israeli army (she was an officer in the air force) to freeing a Palestinian terrorist. ‘That is the true dramatic arc, and that became apparent pretty fast,’ says van Messel.

September 11, 2001: Terrorists fly two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, U.S.; another is crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.; and a fourth plane goes down in a field in Pennsylvania. The tragic events unavoidably become a plot point for the film. The world takes a greater interest in terrorism, particularly in the Middle East.

October 2001: The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television grants approximately $42,000 to the film. Based in Tel Aviv, the foundation is charged with encouraging the production of docs, experimental, feature and short films in Israel. Gerstel had submitted an application to the institution in July requesting funding.

November 2001: My Terrorist is pitched at the International Forum for Documentary Co-financing in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Several commissioning editors attending saw the pitch in Tel Aviv and have kept in contact with van Messel about the project. Many firm up their commitment to the film following the Amsterdam pitch, as do others who are hearing about the project for the first time. Mette Hoffmann Meyer of TV 2 Denmark, Mark Atkin of SBS in Australia and Bjoern Arvas from SVT in Sweden all sign contracts in the new year. Iikka Vehkahlahti of YLE TV2 in Finland is the first, with an agreement signed in January 2002 that promises 5,000 euros ($4,800) to the doc. ‘The event was very good for publicity of the project,’ says van Messel.

Yves Jeanneau, director of docs for France 2, also expressed interest in the project. Says van Messel, ‘He said we could get 50,000 euros ($48,500), but that we could get more then twice that amount if we partnered with a French production company. I spoke to Yulie about this, and we agreed that this was a little film that would not benefit from a big production structure.’ Instead, Gerstel and van Messel sign with Sabine Bubeck-Paaz of ZDF/ARTE in Germany/France.

Early 2002: Although Gerstel is still shooting, she begins to edit the film in February. The project’s delivery date isn’t until December 2002, but Gerstel is ahead of schedule and gives the coproducing stations a draft of the film in May. Another follows in June. ‘Yulie has an ability to incorporate criticism without being obedient, which is extremely constructive and satisfying,’ says van Messel. ‘There were a lot of coproducers in this film, and nobody felt there was a crowd. It’s a commissioning editor’s nightmare that the BBC will dictate how the film will be, but it wasn’t like that at all.’

In July, Gerstel begins the online edit. The Jerusalem Film Festival (July 18 to 27, 2002) is interested in screening the film if it is completed, and Gerstel is confident she can wrap in time for the event.

July 2002: My Terrorist debuts at the Jerusalem Film Festival. It takes home a special jury prize.

August 2002: The film airs on Channel 8 in Israel.

October 2002: First Hand Films presents My Terrorist at MIPCOM.


New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television

The New Foundation for Cinema and Television based in Tel Aviv supports a variety of film genres, but the majority of the projects it funds are documentaries. Set up by the Ministry of the Arts in 1993, the foundation is funded by a tax that Israel’s broadcasters are obligated to pay as a percentage of their income. Money is granted for script development and completion funds, but the bulk of support goes to production budgets. At the high end, a film receives between US$50,000 and $70,000 in production funding. To qualify for support, a filmmaker must have a broadcaster signed on for the project.

Three years ago, the foundation entered into a partnership with the Medea Program, an organization funded by the European Union to support international feature and documentary coproductions, with the goal of strengthening overseas opportunities for Israeli filmmakers. More then 15 projects have since received financial grants and screening opportunities outside of Israel. Additionally, the foundation is cooperating with the Bracha Foundation to help young filmmakers produce short documentary films.

One of the foundation’s key objectives for 2003 is to provide greater financial support and resources to feature-length docs.

Filmmakers interested in applying for support should brush up on their Hebrew – it’s the only language in which the foundation accepts applications.

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