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“Arna’s Children”: an Israeli Activist’s Family Saga
By Mohammed Ali Atassi
Directed by Juliano Mer Khamis
2004, 84 minutes
This unique and exceptional film follows 15 years of the life of Arna, an Israeli activist and anti-Zionist who is also director Juliano’s mother. The documentary covers her commitment to the children of the Jenin camp, who became, in a sense, Arna’s children, over the years from the first Intifada through her death from cancer in 1995. Juliano’s film continues beyond Arna’s death to the second (Al Aqsa) Intifada in 2000, specifically highlighting the tragic destiny of Arna’s children: the children whom Arna taught, who were killed in an Israeli military operation in the Jenin camp.Rarely does art mimic life as closely as it does in the documentary “Arna’s Children,” by Israeli director Juliano Mer Khamis, which aired on the German/French ART Channel.
Arna was born to Jewish parents in Palestine, during the period of the British Mandate, in the settlement of Roshina, Galilee. In her youth, she joined the forces of Zionist Pamach. After the formation of the state of Israel, she joined the Communist Party and married an intellectual Palestinian journalist, Saliba Khamis, from the city of Nazareth. They had two children, Juliano and Spartacus.
The outbreak of the first Intifada and the occupation by the Israeli forces led to the destruction of the Palestinian education system in the Jenin camp. In 1989, Arna came to the camp and established a substitute education system, which she called “The Home of the Child.” She began teaching a variety of arts, including painting, acting and theater. In appreciation of her contribution and work in the camp, Arna received an alternative to the Nobel Prize from the Norwegian parliament. She invested the $50,000 of prize money into the Jenin camp and built a theater. With the assistance of her son Juliano, a professional actor, Arna formed a theater troupe comprised of the camp’s children.
Arna’s new theater troupe immediately set to work training and rehearsing for the play “The Small Lamb” by Ghassan Kanafani [the late Palestinian novelist]. Juliano poised his camera to capture and document all that occurred during the training and rehearsal process and the actual performance. Thus, due to the timing of this production, Juliano documented many poignant moments during which Arna and her children became mixed up in a war that raged in the Jenin camp.
In the early 1990s, Arna was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her death was imminent. This difficult fact led Juliano to travel with his mother and document her life through film. Juliano’s record of his mother’s life included her time at the Jenin camp. In December 1995, Arna lost her battle with cancer, and as a result the theater in the Jenin camp closed its doors, and Arna’s children mourned.
Juliano left the camp and returned to his professional life of acting, and the film documenting his mother’s contributions was shelved and temporarily forgotten. Juliano made sure to comply with his mother’s wish that she not be categorized as a hero on film; nevertheless, Juliano captured her life even to Juliano retrieving her body from the morgue.
Juliano returned to the Jenin camp in April 2002 to document the most recent battle, which had ended just a few days before his arrival. During this latest battle, most of the homes were destroyed and Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered the heart of the camp, where for 12 days resistance had remained strong. Juliano discovered that most of the youngsters who had been members of his mother’s theater troupe either had died or been placed on Israel’s most-wanted list – a list of those marked for death by Israel. Suddenly, under the occupation and amidst the many killings, the theater stage had transformed into the stage of life. The troupe was no longer comprised of actors playing the roles of kings, ministers and doormen, but of young men living the roles of fighters, as they shared and gave up their lives, becoming martyrs, heroes and wanted men. And once again, Juliano used the only weapon he had: his camera. He documented the lives of these children, the heroes of his old theater, who had grown into young men and become, for some, heroes playing on the stage of life, confronting harsh realities and death under the Israeli occupation.
Zakariyya, Alla, Ashraf, Youssef and Nidal. These are Arna’s children, whom Juliano followed from childhood, to early adulthood, to death.
Of these children only one survived the occupation: Zakariyya. He is now the leader of Al Aqsa Brigade in the West Bank and at the top of Israel’s most-wanted list. Juliano’s film does not set out to exploit emotions and therefore does not juxtapose images in a way that would unnecessarily evoke strong emotions. From the beginning, the film uses visual archives as a tool to narrate what happened to the children – who became the young adults – of the Jenin camp. Juliano’s careful filming documents both the direction their lives took and the journeys that led them to their deaths.
In one scene, we see divergent images in the distance: one of the child Alla, who sits in sadness contemplating the ruins of his home, decimated by the occupation during the first Intifada; another of the adult Alla with a machine gun, bragging and joking during the peak of the second Intifada; and a third of the martyr Alla, no longer a living man but a burned corpse lying in the hospital surrounded by his mourning parents and comrades. Through these different images and periods, the film weaves its plot, and the children’s lives leave their bloody imprints on the film.
The film can be divided into three distinct periods based on the narrative and images used. The first part details the first Intifada and shows Arna’s children, who at this time are between the ages of seven and nine. Arna is still vibrant and healthy. The second stage is set during the Oslo Peace Accords. Arna loses her hair due to the advancing cancer, and her children appear older. They are now young teens, about 12 years old, who dream of life, theater and freedom. The third and final period takes place after the second Intifada, years after Arna’s death. Arna’s children have become fighters and martyrs surrounded by destruction. During this third section of the film, Juliano returns to the Jenin camp after the Israeli invasion to find out what has become of the children of his mother’s former theater troupe and to document whatever is left of them and their new lives.
In the beginning of the film, we see the children of the theater troupe, between the ages of seven and nine, surrounding Arna and learning how to express their anger at being a part of a situation over which they have no control. Alla, whose home was destroyed along with his neighbor Ashraf’s home, appears shy and unable to speak. Arna asks the two boys how they feel after the destruction of their homes. She asks Ashraf, “If you could do something, what would you do?” He replies, without hesitation, “I would kill them.” She says to him, “Hey, I’m the army. Come release that anger on me.” Ashraf jokingly attacks her, and Arna then asks the children to rip up the papers they are holding in their hands. She tells them, “When we are upset we need to express our anger openly. You have done this because of your profound sorrow.” Arna then encourages the children to express their feelings through painting with a variety colors. Again, the camera focuses on Alla, who is painting his destroyed home with a Palestinian flag over it. Though Alla prefers painting to theater, his friend Ashraf decides to join the theater troupe and we see him attending rehearsals with his friend Youssef, sharing the role of the hero.
After the theater troupe achieved significant success, Ashraf was interviewed on Israeli television, footage that Juliano includes in his documentary. A journalist asks Ashraf about the role of theater in his life, and Ashraf tells the reporter what he feels like when he’s on the stage. “I act as if I am throwing a stone and a Molotov bomb. I feel powerful and great.”
The Fate of the Children
When Juliano returns to the Jenin camp in April 2002, Alla is waiting for him. Alla has become the leader of Al Aqsa Brigade in the camp. Alla tells the director that Ashraf, his comrade and neighbor, died in a camp battle. Youssef and Nidal, two other children from the play, had carried out a military operation in 2001, opening fire on passersby in the city of Al Khadira before they were killed by Israeli police.
The director, assisted by historical television footage, includes images from different times throughout the film. We see a body in white funeral clothes with the name of the martyr Ashraf Abu al-Hija, put in a truck with other corpses from the Jenin battle, all to be buried in a mass grave. We also watch a scene of Youssef and Nidal, bearded, while they read their wills, comfort their parents and give their souls to heaven. Behind them we see the slogan of the Islamic Jihad. Juliano also shows images of a command operation in the city of Al Khadira and of their corpses: Nidal behind a car’s steering wheel, and Youssef laid on the ground.
As for Zakariyya and Alla, who were leaders of the Brigade during the battle of Jenin, they miraculously escaped death. While Zakariyya lay buried alive under the ruins during the last days of battle, Alla was arrested and then released due to the Israeli ignorance of his real identity. During the period after the battle, which destroyed the camp, the camera of Juliano accompanied Zakariyya and Alla in a game of cat and mouse with the Israeli army. They are shot on film while planting bombs and opening fire on soldiers. Juliano also accompanies Alla and Zakariyya to their hiding places at night. The camera records their conversations and jokes, as Zakariyya mocks Alla for leaving the ruins almost naked.
Between seriousness and humor, Juliano asks Alla if he will give himself up in this game in which he has climbed his way to the top of the most-wanted list; his home has been threatened with destruction. Alla responds, “A house is not more precious than the blood of a martyr. They will not get me; the grave is free.” We then watch as Alla’s body is placed in his grave, carried on the shoulders of his comrades. We hear the screaming of his mother amidst religious chanting. The film ends with a scene of a group of small children singing Palestinian songs and swarming around over ruins of the camp, facing the camera. Then we hear Juliano’s voice telling us that Alla had a child two weeks before his death – the baby’s name is Ziad.
A Different Picture
Juliano’s film is a rarity in the world of documentaries because of the unique relationship he creates between the image and reality and moreover because of his cinematic treatment of the image. Juliano’s camera is humble, benefiting from the director’s persistence and his closeness to the personalities in his film and their stories. He avoids using distorted, cheap and sensational images. Instead, he presents a film of utmost importance and depth about the Intifada, violence and death. It takes viewers away from the routine of news broadcasts with their barrage of images of the dead and wounded and the ever-rising death toll, providing those viewers with a unique experience. The film provides the names of the martyrs and those pursued by the Israelis. Juliano provides us with a glimpse of humanity, destroyed dreams and individual life stories, giving us an understanding of how innocent children can transform into militant fighters.
The names Alla, Zakariyya, Youssef, Nidal and Ashraf are repeated throughout the film, though Juliano never includes their last names. Despite this omission, viewers feel that they know these young men intimately. However, a quick internet search of these names linked with the word “Jenin” immediately provides the first and last names of each: Ashraf Abu al-Hija, Nidal and Youssef Suwaiti, Alla as-Sabbagh and Zakariyya al-Zubeidi. With this information, viewers may quickly realize that they have read and heard these names scores of times in Arab newspapers and on news broadcasts, without giving them great attention. These names are part of an unending list of prisoners, martyrs and wanted men, lists of names that have been repeated monotonously, morning and night, on the Arab media since the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada.
In the film “Arna’s Children,” these names take their full right, transforming from names on a list to actual people, each with his own story. The newsreels broadcast on satellite channels in the wake of Al Khadira operations. Youssef and Nidal read their wills in front of the printed slogan “Saraya Al Quds,” a slogan that belongs to the Islamic Jihad. Another newsreel includes footage of a dead girl covered in her own blood, an image that feels familiar because it is similar to so many other images that have been broadcast before. Through “Arna’s Children” and Youssef’s friends, we discover the story behind the images. Like Youssef’s friends, we too witness Youssef as a happy child full of life who undergoes a complete transformation. He became distracted and sad after he failed to rescue Riham Abuward, the 10-year-old girl recognizable from the newsreel image. Riham was sitting in her classroom when she was hit by a grenade launched by an Israeli tank. She died in front of Youssef, who tried unsuccessfully to rescue her.
Several months later, Youssef read his own will while seated in front of a picture of her, before he carried out his military operation.
Within the same framework, one of Youssef’s friends, Mahmoud, explains to Juliano what his friend Youssef’s condition was before his military operation: “For two years during the Intifada he remained as if living in a prison. He became bored; he had something to get off of his chest.
The scene of the dead child in his arms had affected him tremendously, and he couldn’t bear it anymore. His brother died at home, without having done anything wrong. Youssef said to himself, ‘If you want to kill me, let me die as I wish.’”
The film here breaks with the monotonous picture of those who sacrificed themselves, for the film neither justifies suicidal operations nor condemns them at the political level. Instead, the film attempts to show, at the individual level, how Youssef, the innocent, adoring child who dreamed of theater and freedom, transformed into a fighter who believed he had nothing to lose with all that he had already suffered and the horrors and crimes of occupation under which he continued to live.
The Uncertainty of Identity
The question of identity and all its ambiguities is one of the most important and daring issues that the film presents in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Director Juliano Mer Khamis is an Israeli citizen of dual identity, for he is considered to be one of the 1948 Palestinians on his father’s side, but at the same time is an Israeli Jew by the law of the Israeli state because his mother was an Israeli Jew. Juliano’s parents both opposed Zionism and both identified themselves as secular citizens and members of the Israeli Communist Party.
As for discerning Juliano’s own opinions, one newspaper reports him saying: “My goal with the film was to search for hope in an attempt to defeat Zionist domination. I did not search for examples of pitiful Arab-Jewish coexistence because we should live first, before coexisting…I believe, as Arna believed, that peace will not come except with the end of the occupation, the defeat of Zionism and the establishment of a secular, independent state, in which the two peoples live together without walls and checkpoints.”
And how do the inhabitants of the Jenin camp view Juliano and his Jewish mother? If the reader had not watched the film, he might find it strange that the inhabitants of the Jenin camp – men, women and children – despite their suffering under occupation, remain able to distinguish, from the occupation and its soldiers, the Jew – even the Israeli – who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and who supports their rights. Though the people of the Jenin camp see Juliano as Jewish, the son of a Jewish woman, they also consider Juliano one of them and welcome him into their homes. In one of the emotionally moving, significant scenes in the film, Juliano returns to the camp after it had been occupied and finds himself surrounded by mothers and the new generation of children. We find a veiled mother explaining to her puzzled child, “He’s Jewish. He’s a Jewish uncle.” Another woman says to Juliano, “Arna is a very good friend, God bless her soul. We’ve been too hard on her.”
Earlier in the film, we hear a dialogue between Juliano and the children of the theater troupe. They reveal to him how they originally thought he was a spy for the occupation, intent on gathering information about the camp. We hear little Youssef telling Juliano, “I thought even the Arabs would spy, so why wouldn’t the Jews, who are enemies of Arabs, do the same? First, I was surprised, but then I got to know you better after spending time with you, and I learned who you are. And without exaggeration, I used to like Arna as though she were my own mother, and even more. And you, you’re like a brother or a father to me.”
This was the same Youssef who grew up and sacrificed himself by opening fire on the Israelis in the city of Al Khadira. He never forgot Juliano and Arna, and his affection for them never altered. When Youssef bid farewell to his friends in the camp, without telling them what he was going to do, he also contacted Juliano to ask how he was doing and to say goodbye.
As for Arna, her original identity did not prevent the Palestinians from considering her one of them. By simply reading the letters posted on the internet site devoted to Arna and viewing the film, one realizes the extent of the identification that the Palestinians share with her. We can read, for example, the expression, “O dying Arna, to the eternal paradise” or “O Saint Arna, one thousand Peace of Gods be upon you, and a prayer upon your soul.”
Though Juliano refused to have his mother buried in the Jenin camp for fear that the Israeli army would use her grave as an excuse to extend the occupation – to protect a Jewish woman’s remains – Arna did return to the camp to bid farewell to her children, a trip that she insisted upon while on her deathbed. Whoever witnessed the reception that the people of the camp gave Arna, how her head was covered by a Palestinian kuffiya, with her tears betraying her as she moved from one Palestinian embrace to another, would clearly see that the Palestinian identity is not inherited by blood, but rather is gained through sharing daily bread and the will to live.
Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala
This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 11, no. 53, Fall 2005).
The Arabic version of this article appeared in An Nahar Literary Supplement; the English version appears in Al Jadid exclusively. The author has granted Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate and publish.