In 2006, the new Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp held an art competition.
“Don’t just go for the tanks,” Juliano Mer-Khamis, the co-founder of the theater, told the children-artists. “Hope. Where is the hope?”
A 12-year-old girl named Wafaa painted a mother pulling her son out of the ruins of a demolished home. Juliano gently admonished the young student, reminding her that the painting should represent hope.
“But there’s this red flower,” the girl said, pointing to a splash of color next to the rubble. “There.”
“I almost cried,” Juliano recounted. “So…hope is there. We have to pour water, pour water, pour water. And that’s what we do here.”
That hope was badly shattered on Monday, April 4, when Juliano was shot dead by a masked gunman outside the Freedom Theatre.
Juliano, the child of a Jewish Israeli mother and Palestinian Christian father, both communists, co-founded the Freedom Theatre as an outgrowth of his 2004 documentary film, Arna’s Children. The film depicts the art and theater program that his mother, Arna, established for children in the Jenin Refugee Camp during the first intifada. Juliano returns to the camp after the massive Israeli invasion of 2002, during the second intifada, when large swaths of it were bulldozed by the Israeli army. He wants to know: what became of the children from his mother’s program? Nearly all of them, he discovers, are dead. Several had been part of the resistance against the Israeli invasion. One had undertaken a suicide attack in the Israeli city of Hadera. Of the few that were still alive, one was killed during the course of the filming. Arna’s Children is a searing portrayal of how occupation destroys childhood. It also is a compassionate and complex portrait of Palestinian resistance, looking closely at both the cultures of violence and soumoud, or steadfastness, that arise in the wake of occupation. It is amid this destruction and hopelessness that Juliano captured some of the most haunting footage, tracking the trajectories of the young Palestinian men imprisoned in ghettos within ghettos. We see young children happily playing theater games in one scene only to see grainy footage of them years later, reading their final wishes before they enact their final scene: martyrdom.
Devastating as the film is, it manages not to stray into sentimentality or become a portrait of either victimization or vilification. It is a series of snapshots of the destruction of Palestinian society from without and within, a documentation of the thousands of daily nakbas, yet somehow manages to capture the dignity of those people whom Eduardo Galeano so aptly termed “the nobodies that aren’t worth the bullet that kills them.” It was from this film, and from these “nobodies,” that sprang the hope that is the Freedom Theatre.
Juliano initially did not intend to come back to Jenin after the release of the film. But, at a certain point, he said, he felt responsible for his film. “I cannot just do films and go on,” he said. “You do films with the purpose to change reality, at least to have some influence on it.”