Hamtramck—Years after the release of the award-winning, heart-crushing documentary “Arna’s Children,” the film’s creator is traveling the world to raise money to rebuild the Palestinian youth theater that the movie centers around.
Footage of smiling, hopeful faces of a group of Jenin refugee camp children juxtaposed with later images of them as militants and corpses is eliciting a sense of urgency and generating donations from audiences, according to the film’s co-director Juliano Mer Khamis.
“It’s the wet dream of every documentarian… that his work will motivate people to act,” he said.
In 2004 the film was named Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was founded in 2002 as a response to the World Trade Center attacks.
Juliano Mer Khamis is the son of Arna Mer Khamis, a renowned Palestinian human rights activist who put together an alternative education project in the Jenin refugee camp in 1988, after Israeli authorities shut down all schools in the Occupied Territories during the first Palestinian uprising.
She started a youth theatre in 1993 along with Juliano, who was a successful actor in Israel. He filmed the children as he worked with them and recorded them talking about their frustrations as they watched their homes be demolished and family members imprisoned, and about their dreams of using theatre as a form of resistance.
The project fell apart after Arna’s death from cancer in 1995.
Juliano returned in 2002 after the Israeli army’s invasion of the camp to find out what became of the children.
The boys had turned into militants.
The film captures them as young men shooting futilely at Israeli tanks and assembling explosives, having become members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Most of them died.
“The film created huge vibrations,” said Khanis at a recent screening.
“People are moved. You gain trust from people when they see these pictures. We can prove here that these are not genetically born suiciders, and this is not about virgins… They are not born genetically hating Jews. It’s not about anti-Semitism. It’s about fighting the occupation.”
As a child, Ashraf, the most energetic and charismatic of Arna’s theater group of 8 and 9 year-olds, told Juliano on camera with a huge, innocent smile “We bring out the things that trouble us (through art)… We won’t let the occupation keep us in the gutter.”
He’s seen later in the film as a grown man in a body bag, shot to death as a militant.
Mer Khamis came to Detroit last week during a two-week trip to the U.S. for a series of screenings of “Arna’s Children” aimed at raising funds to rebuild the project.
In 2006 he established The Freedom Theatre in the Jenin camp, with the help of donors from Sweden and one of the remaining members of Arna’s original group of kids, a well known Al-Aqsa militant, Zacharia Zubeida.
“Many guerilla fighters are joining the theatre,” said Mer Khamis. “The people of Jenin acknowledge the need for a new kind of resistance.”
He said The Freedom Theatre is finding new ways of resisting because the current strategy has failed.
“They acknowledge that a gun without identity can shoot bad bullets.”
The group is hoping to raise $1.2 million to build what Mer Khamis said will be the most modern theater in the Middle East.
A screening held at the home of a Hamtramck activist last Friday was aimed in part at reaching out for help from members of the anti-occupation group Jewish Voice for Peace.
“We have great support from Jews,” Mer Khamis said, “and not enough from Arabs.”
He said he thinks there are several reasons for this.
“Every Arab supports 15 uncles and nieces… and they are very afraid to be connected to anything in Palestine.”
For more information on The Freedom Theatre, visit www.friendsofthejeninfreedomtheatre.org.