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BERLIN (Reuters) - When Israeli director Natalie Assouline told Palestinian women convicted of taking part in suicide bomb plots that she wanted to make a film about them, they thought she was crazy.
But she went ahead and over a period of two years visited an Israeli prison to film "Shahida - Brides of Allah," a documentary exploring the motives of women who recruit and drive bombers to public places or strap on explosives themselves.
"When I started coming to film again and again the women didn't know how to take me. They must have thought, 'who is this crazy, Israeli Jewish person?"' Assouline told Reuters at the Berlin film festival, where the film had its premiere.
The film combines a series of thoughtful one-on-one interviews with scenes from everyday prison life -- tearful family visits, school classes, gossip about clothes and boredom.
In turn humorous and shocking, Assouline's camera lets the women tell their stories and produce their own irony and fun in their brightly decorated cells.
One woman coyly describes wanting to blow up a hospital which treated her for severe burns following a kitchen accident, even though the Israeli doctors were kind. Another cuddles her son and says she wanted to destroy an Israeli kindergarten.
In one bizarrely comic scene, an inmate whispers to her friend that she wanted to blow herself up because she was fed up and wanted something to do. Many of the women lament the fact that they were caught because their explosives did not detonate.
Assouline said that although she sympathized with the women's pain, as when one inmate dolefully accepts her husband's right to take a new wife under Islamic law, she tried not to allow it to color her judgment of the prisoners.
"I can understand that they are victims of many things, of society, of their occupations, the life they are born into.
"But for me they stopped being victims when they took action, when they took somebody else's life. This is the thin line I was working on."
She admitted that "Shahida" did not answer the film's most pressing question -- why? -- and said she struggled at times to get the women to be truthful when they were being filmed.
"I realized that there is something in front of the camera and something behind the camera," she explained.
Scared of reprisals by radical fellow inmates, the "Brides of Allah" made some of their most telling revelations only when the camera was turned off, Assouline said.
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Editing by Tim Pearce