Jenin's Freedom Theatre: Q&A with Juliano Mer-Khamis
Born in 1958 in Nazareth, Juliano Mer-Khamis is an Arab-Israeli actor, filmmaker, and currently director of the Jenin Freedom Theatre. Mer-Khamis is the son of Saliba Khamis, Palestinian leader of the Israeli Communist Party in the 1950s, and of Arna Mer, an Israeli activist, who abandoned Zionism to fight for Palestinian rights. In 1993, Arna Mer was awarded The Right Livelihood Award for her work with the children of Jenin.
As an actor in Israeli TV, film, and theater from 1984-2002, Juliano used the name “Juliano Mer.” In 2002, he went to seek and interview his late mother’s students in the Jenin refugee camp after a 12-day Israeli attack. He spoke with parents whose children had been killed and children who had joined Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades--all of them remembered Arna. That experience became a moving cinematic tribute to his mother, Arna’s Children.
In 2006, Mer-Khamis continued his mother’s work by founding The Freedom Theatre (TFT), a community theater that uses creative expression as a model for social change.
Q: Many Americans know TFT because of your 2004 film Arna’s Children. Why did you decide to reopen the Theatre?
A: In 2002, I was a very well-paid actor during one of the most violent Intifadas, violent on both sides. As an actor I was no longer effective on the Israeli stage. I felt that Israeli society no longer tolerated criticism or opposition. Strong racist attitudes, ghetto relations, violence—all of these tendencies I saw surfacing. I felt Israel was heading towards a closed, stagnant, monolithic community. Looking back, I think I was right.
Arna’s Children created a lot of controversy, which forced me to rethink my artistic presence in the Israeli scene. I decided to leave. I couldn’t entertain anymore. I was looking for ways out. The most natural place for me was Jenin. The film had awakened voices that called me. I took some friends and here we are.
Q: Do you have any regrets about that decision?
A: Yes, I do when my anxieties and fears overcome my need for solidarity, my need to do something for my people. I worry I have no pension, no social security, I’m out of the industry, no one will remember me. How will I feed my family? Then I go drink a glass of whiskey in Tel Aviv and when I see what’s happening there it gives me courage to continue for another year.
Q: Who is Zakaria Zubeidi? Is he still working with the Theatre?
A: Zakaria is the only one of Arna’s original students still alive. He’s not working in the Theatre because he’s still considered by some to be a militant. We have amnesty and his participation might jeopardize our work, especially our fundraising. But he’s the spiritual leader who symbolizes the essence of our Theatre, which welcomes Israeli artists like Udi Aloni with open arms. This is Zakaria’s work not mine.
Q: What are the Theatre’s goals?
A: I hope we can generate a political-artistic movement. The big Israeli victory was to ruin us as individuals. Obviously they destroyed Palestinian social and economic infrastructure. This happens in every armed struggle. But Palestinians are divided internally not just externally. The feeling of corruption is eating us up. There is no trust in leadership.
Q: No trust in Palestinian leadership?
A: There is no leadership. At least not elected leadership. There’s an authority that’s been imposed on the Palestinians to the benefit of Israelis. Forced authority isn’t leadership; it’s a subcontractor who executes the contractor’s policies.
Q: Tell us something about your father and his influence on you?
A: When I was born, my father was in jail. Two months after my birth, both my mother and father were arrested. I always say freedom fighters save the children of the world and end up losing their own.
Q: Did it present conflicts for you growing up as an Arab Israeli?
A: I’ve always tried to keep both Arab and Israeli sides at peace in my body. I tried to find this cultural harmony. Growing up I went to Israeli schools and served in the Israeli army, so naturally I felt more Israeli; the Palestinian part was more abstract. My father was away while I was growing up, and I lived in Tel Aviv, which is a city clean of Arabs. Making Arna’s Children was like a deep tunnel into the Palestinian part of me. I was in the refugee camp for more than two years, day and night.
I discovered I could be part of the camp, not treated like an outsider, a guest. So making the film gave me the confidence to leave my acting career, house, family. That’s not easy at the age of 50. It takes lots of courage. I didn’t have this courage before. I wanted to do something radical so I could live in peace with myself. I didn’t want to go on stage entertaining these soldiers who just killed and shot my friends or the children of my friends in Jenin.
Q: Originally some of the camp’s children thought you and your mother were Israeli spies. Then, curious, they wondered why Jews would help Arabs, the enemy. How valid is their skepticism? How do you and teachers like Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni answer it?
A: What happened with Aloni is that after teaching a Master Class, one of our students challenged him in just that way: she said “show us you really care.” He is now in a 2-year residency at TFT, teaching filmmaking and producing a new version of Antigone.
Q: So TFT is planning a Palestinian version of Antigone and last year you presented an adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Wouldn’t it be less controversial to just perform Shakespeare plays?
A: Our role isn’t to entertain people to forget their harsh lives, to escape. We are training our young people—literally and metaphorically—to raise their voices, to create, to think freely, not to fear soldiers’ uniforms, Liberation depends on that radicalism. For the last five years we’ve had Palestinian guns on one side and Israeli tanks on the other.
When we adopt the enemy’s tactics we become the enemy. That’s why the Intifada was a failure—morally and politically. We became a mirror of our enemy. The only power we have as Palestinians is to uphold our values; we cannot sink to the level of Israelis. We will always lose. We will remain ghettoized, trapped, cantonized, and leaderless. We have to find a new platform for our cause, new solutions for our cause. For this, I say, you need a factory of ideas, places and spaces to experiment in creating a new identity.
Q: In her acceptance speech of the Right Livelihood Award in 1993, Arna spoke about combating oppression with a “language of hope.” How does TFT carry forward her original goals?
A: Anyone who has seen Arna’s Children knows how much joy acting, dancing, playing music, taking photos gives these children—and joy gives them hope they can one day entertain the world, exhibit their work, enjoy a larger audience. So we are building hope amidst the rubble of war here. I call it a “creative Intifada” and it can give the children strength to face the harsh reality of life in the camp. In the documentary Ashraf says “When I am on stage I feel like I am throwing stones. We won’t let the occupation keep us in the gutter.”
Q: How is your work different from what your mother started in the late 1980s?
A: My mother was much more subversive than me, more courageous. She was building up an alternative, underground education system, a revolutionary system designed to build a national movement. The Freedom Theatre focuses more purely on the arts and individual expression. Essentially, I brought my love for the theater to Jenin.
Q: What are some of the ways artists and teachers can get involved with TFT?
A: We have visiting artists like Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, American choreographer Bill T. Jones, and the Arnie Zane Dance Company. Volunteers are always welcome, especially if they can teach filmmaking and photography. A nonprofit group, Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, provides financial and logistic support by raising money for ongoing expenses and our expansion plans. On our website (www.thefreedomtheatre.org) supporters can buy a DVD of Arna’s Children, set up a one-time or monthly donation, take a virtual tour of the Theatre, and volunteer their time and expertise. They become part of our extended, our international family.