‘Arna’s Children’: The life and work of Juliano Mer-Khamis

On Thursday night, Artellewa art space held a screening of “Arna’s Children,” a 2004 documentary by the late Juliano Mer-Khamis. The documentary tells the story of his mother Arna Mer’s work with children in the Jenin refugee camp in the Palestinian Territories. In “Arna’s Children,” Mer-Khamis goes back to the Jenin refugee camp during the Second Intifada in 2002 to find out what has happened to the theater and the children. He discovers that the theater has been destroyed and most of the young men who once acted and played theater games with Arna are now involved in daily battles with Israeli tanks. After finishing the film, Mer-Khamis was compelled to continue his mother’s work and founded the Freedom Theater, a community project putting on theater productions with children in Jenin. He felt he could not leave Jenin behind after finishing the film. He said, “You do films with the purpose to change reality, at least to have some influence on it.”

Last week, on 4 April, 2011, Mer-Khamis was shot dead near the Freedom Theater. The 52-year-old world renowned actor, activist, filmmaker, and theater director had, most recently performed in Julian Schnabel’s 2010 film “Miral,” which tells the story of an orphaned Palestinian girl.

But Mer-Khamis’s most notable work was the theater, a project that aspired to be simultaneously daring art, community service, and active resistance. In “Arna’s Children,” Mer-Khamis shows how Arna Mer’s theater functioned in some ways as group therapy. After one child’s home is destroyed, Arna says to him “Pretend I am an Israeli soldier. What do you want to do to me?” The child bangs his fists against Arna, and all of the children begin tearing paper and yelling. The children are smiling, but they are clearly full of anger.

In a 2006 interview, Mer-Khamis said of the Freedom Theater, “Nobody joined this project to heal. The therapeutic level is not to heal. It's not to heal anybody from his violence. It's to create an awareness they can use in the right way.” Both Mer-Khamis and his mother made clear that their goal in the theater project in Jenin was an active resistance against the occupation. “Arna’s Children” opens with Arna giving a rousing speech in the theater. She is dying of cancer and has lost her hair from chemotherapy, she has a black and white kofeya wrapped around her neck. She shouts, “The Intifada, for us and for our children, is a struggle for freedom.” She and her son shared a defiant spirit and a willingness to fight against the most overwhelming odds. She says, “Either the project finishes me, or I’ll die before the project is finished.”

Though both Juliano Mer-Khamis and his mother did not shy away from strong rhetoric of liberation and resistance, their chosen tools were theater and art. Juliano called for a third Palestinian Intifada that would be cultural, using “poetry, music, theater, cameras and magazines,” as tools for fighting. He said “we believe that the strongest struggle today should be cultural, moral. This must be clear.”

“Arna’s Children” shows what a difficult task that his. It is a searing testament to the fact the violence is a never ending cycle. The children acting in plays with Arna find non-violent means of expression in the theater. In the film, an Israeli camera-crew comes to film a story about the project. One boy tells them, “When I’m on stage I feel like I’m throwing stones.” But throughout “Arna’s Children,” Mer-Khamis weaves together scenes of children playing games, smiling, and acting, with scenes of those same children later on, when they have become more completely wrapped up in the violence of the occupation. We see the body bag of one young man killed in the Battle of Jenin, another two filming their last words before embarking on a suicide attack, and another organizing continued fighting in Jenin before he, too, is eventually killed.

Juliano Mer-Khamis was half Israeli and half Palestinian, born to a Jewish mother and Palestinian father, and referred to himself as “100 percent Jewish and 100 percent Palestinian.” After his death, Haaretz journalist Amira Hass wrote of how his identity embodied the dream for a binational state. She wrote, “He was the long shadow of an imagined binational community from the 1950s.”

Mer-Khamis angered those on both sides of the conflict. Many of the plays put on by the Freedom Theater contained criticism of aspects of Palestinian society. After a production of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” that was reinterpreted to critique Palestinian politics rather than socialism, and in which one child performed as a pig, there was an arson attempt on the theater.

A Palestinian militant is being held by the Palestinian Authority for involvement in Mer-Khamis' death, according to Haaretz.

Amira Hanefi organized the event at Artellewa, an independent, non-profit art space in the Ard El Lewa neighborhood in Cairo, founded in 2007 by Hamdy Reda. The screening of “Arna’s Children” took place on the rooftop of the Artellewa building. Hanefi chose to show the film in part because “the film itself is appropriate for this time in Egypt. It shows the power of art, what it can be used for, and also how dangerous art can be.”  She added that the film is a “reminder of another one of the tools available to Egyptians and Egypt toward the change that we all want to see.”

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