Hilla Medalia was at an impasse with her documentary, “To Die in Jerusalem,” when she decided to accompany Broadway theater veteran James Lecesne to New Orleans, with her camera in tow. “Jerusalem” had been inspired by accounts of a teenaged Palestinian suicide bomber and her Israeli victim, and Medalia had hoped to bring their two grieving mothers together, but political red tape shut down the production. As she searched for a new project, she chanced to learn of Lecesne’s plans to visit another ravaged area inhabited by parents and children in crisis: the city of New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m not a carpenter; I can’t build a house, but I know about the theater,” Lecesne says in Medalia’s new documentary, “After the Storm,” which had its world premiere on June 21 amid some 200 films at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week. It is one of seven contenders for the best documentary prize, to be announced on June 28. “I know how to tell a story ... and I thought coming down here to help people tell their stories might help.” A second public screening was scheduled for Thursday, June 25, at The Regent.
“After the Storm” follows Lecesne and several other artists as they stage a hurricane-themed Broadway musical, “Once on This Island,” with youths still displaced by Katrina. “Some of the children were not living with their parents, and some had no running water in their homes — their conditions were worse than those I eventually saw in Palestinian refugee camps,” Medalia said. “They were in so much pain, many couldn’t discuss their feelings without shutting down or crying. But as they worked on the musical, you could see the show help them express their emotions — an outlet that allowed them to begin to heal.”
Healing in the aftermath of trauma has been a creative preoccupation for Medalia, who grew up near Tel Aviv, studied film at Southern Illinois University, and is now editing a documentary about the psychotherapy process for Israeli veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Just living in Israel, you always feel stressed,” Medalia said. “Is it normal to live in a country where everywhere you go people check your purse and your car, and you’re afraid to be in crowded public places? Even today, when I take the subway in New York, I fear that suddenly, someone could blow us up.”
“To Die in Jerusalem” — which Medalia eventually completed in 2007 — was inspired by a suicide bombing that occurred on March 29, 2002. An 18-year-old Palestinian woman, Ayat Al-Akhras, was standing outside a market when she reached into her purse and detonated a blast that killed Rachel Levy, a 17-year-old Israeli.
“I was struck by how similar the girls looked in side-by-side photographs in the newspapers; they could have been sisters,” Medalia said.
But the production stalled when she was unable to travel to the Dehaisheh refugee camp where Ayat had lived; it was around that time that Medalia’s friend, playwright Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”), returned from a philanthropic trip to New Orleans and convinced Lecesne to undertake a similar journey. Medalia volunteered to join him: “But we really didn’t have any specific plans,” she said. Instead, the project took shape when Lecesne stepped into the detritus-filled St. Mark’s center, previously a vibrant community hub, which was still closed two years after Katrina. Medalia’s cameras rolled as Lecesne and his Broadway friends held auditions for a benefit performance of “Once on This Island” to raise funds to reopen the center.
The mostly teenage actors were both talented and traumatized: “It was a real process to learn to speak to the children without hurting them,” Medalia said. “I would ask questions, and they’d start crying, so I had to figure out different ways of knowing them. Sometimes I learned more through their actions and behavior, rather than the things that they said. I had to trust that they would tell their stories through their affect, rather than their words.”
Medalia herself has had a lasting effect on her interviewees. One of the performers, who went on to study musical theater on a scholarship at New York University, plans to spend a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University. Meanwhile, relatives of the late Rachel Levy, who spent part of her childhood in Northridge, were planning to view “After the Storm” and reunite with Medalia at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
The message of “Storm” is how art can help rebuild a community. “I once met a pastor who taught art to Palestinian youth, and he always told me that the children who attended his center never participated in violent resistance or suicide bombings,” Medalia said. “You can see the same power of art to heal and to create meaning for these youths from New Orleans.”
For information, visit www.lafilmfest.com/2009.