L, R and I got together last night to watch Arna’s Children. It was not long before we lost any interest in the popcorn or the chocolates around us. We sat silent through most of the movie, in shock, as reality from Jenin (and the rest of Palestine) played out before us on the screen. This is the most real and up close footage that I have seen from Occupied Palestine and the effect was chilling, indeed. There were several moments in the movie when tears almost bubbled to the surface for me, but in the company of two Palestinian females I somehow managed to suppress them.
The film is made by Juliano Mer Khamis, the son of Arna Mer Khamis, who is a legend from the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Arna, a Jewish woman who initially celebrates the founding of Israel in 1948, and later marries a Palestinian Muslim comrade from the communist party and founds a theatre education group in the Jenin refugee camp, is the central character of the movie – but not really – soon one realizes that the Palestinian children whom she had taught to express their anger through theatre and music are really the central characters.
Arna started the theatre group on a the top floor of a house, space donated to them by the family of one of the boys who joins the theatre. The theatre was established with the money Arna received for her Alternative Nobel prize by the Swedish parliament, and taught young children born and living in the middle of a terrifying conflict to express their anger, frustrations and beliefs actively via theatre. The movie is about children in that theatre, a recollection of short movie clips made in the history of several children over a period of 8+ years, who join Arna’s theatre to deal with their grief and emotions, and later, after Arna dies, get caught up in the tragedy during the Jenin massacre of 2002 (by Israeli armed forces). It is a reflection on what young men in Palestine go through every day. And what griefs and emotions Palestinians have to overcome just to want to live.
The movie is real, it is a real life story, and is made with real life video footage taped by courageous people who were interested in documenting the lives of kids that Arna had so loved and held close. Arna’s son Juliano, director of this film, was also one of the directors of Jenin’s theatre. With his camera, he filmed the children during rehearsal periods from 1989 to 1996, and then he goes back after the massacre of 2002 to see what happened to those kids that he had taught and helped learn about dealing with life. We learn about Youssef, Nidal, Ashraf, Alla and others. Ashraf Abu-elhaje, shown here in the childrens’ theatre of the Jenin refugee camp in 1996, was its most impressive student. At the time he dreamed of a future as the Palestinian Romeo! Six years later Ashraf led a large group of fighters in the battle of Jenin. He was killed by a rocket fired from a helicopter….I won’t describe the story here in detail, but I will just ask you to watch it (you can get it on Netflix). The Palestinian life, the struggles of their youth to find some pride and dignity, and the story of the Jenin tragedy will become known to you.