Documentary by SIUC graduate premiers on HBO: 'To Die in Jerusalem' premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1 on HBO.

In 2002, Rachel Levy walked into a grocery store in Jerusalem to buy groceries for dinner. At almost the same time, Ayat al-Akhras walked into the store carrying a purse full of explosives.

Both girls were 17. Moments later, their fates were forever linked when a security guard tried to stop Ayat and she detonated the purse, killing herself, the guard and Rachel.

Two high school seniors with plans and dreams, families and friends.

They bore a striking resemblance to one another, with dark hair and eyes, slight frames and similar facial features.

They grew up less than four miles apart. However, Abigail grew up in Jerusalem, in a neighborhood very similar to one in the United States, albeit with the underlying constant threat of terror. Ayat, on the other hand, grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, where Israeli incursions could happen at anytime and where some 11,000 people are crammed together in one square kilometer.

After the bombing, both families were left to deal with and understand the tragedy, which led Rachel's mother, Abigail, on a quest to meet with her counterpart, Ayat's mother, Um Samir.

This is the subject of "To Die in Jerusalem," a documentary that premiers on HBO on Nov. 1 and was directed by Hilla Medalia, a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Hilla grew up in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel. After graduating from high school, she served in the Israeli Defense Force for two years and then landed at SIUC on an athletic scholarship.

"Someone told the coach about me," Hilla said. "When I first came to SIU, I really came because of sports but I was always interested in film."

The idea for "To Die in Jerusalem," was actually conceived while she was still a student working on her master's thesis project.

"I read about it in the paper," she said. "I thought it would be a great story."

For her thesis film, "Daughters of Abraham," Hilla interviewed both Abigail and Um Samir. During her interview, Abigail expressed an interest to meet Ayat's parents.

After finishing up her thesis project and graduating, Hilla managed to raise the money to expand on her original idea and follow the story of Abigail's quest.

It was a story that she felt would make a large impact.

"You know, we always hear about what's going on there; it's always in the news," Hilla said. "But it's so hard to really relate.

"When I saw the pictures of the two girls, I thought, 'Wow, I was 17.' I thought that the story of the two girls and the story of the mothers is so strong, so easy to identify with. It's such a personal story.

"On one hand, it's very non-political; on the other hand it's really a microcosm for the whole conflict."

Getting to talk with the mothers wasn't as difficult as one might expect. To get in contact with Abigail Levy, she called 411. For Ayat's mother, it was a little more difficult.

"Obviously, there are no yellow pages in the refugee camps," Hilla said.

Through the contact of a friend, they were able to get in touch.

"It wasn't as hard in my thesis project, but when it came to becoming a big film, I had to spend a lot of time with both families and that's when it became more difficult," Hilla said.

The meeting was the most difficult to arrange, for many reasons. Throughout the documentary, there are many opportunities that fall through. Eventually, the only way they can meet face to face is by satellite.

Though it was somewhat disappointing that the meeting could not take place in person, Hilla said that was appropriate.

"I think that it is very symbolic in representing reality," she said. "The fact that even though they live less than four hours away, it's really almost impossible to meet.

"Neither of them wanted to leave without coming to some kind of agreement. I think they really wanted to get to some kind of understanding."

Hilla said her hope is that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, will see the documentary and be inspired to meet.

"This whole story is a microcosm for something bigger," she said. "That's the point.

"We're so close and there are so many similarities, yet we have a lot of differences in culture and tradition."


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