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.
We went to see "Arna's Children" at the Tribeca Film Festival yesterday afternoon. It is the only TFF program we expect to see, so it's clear we had already thought it was important before we knew a great deal about it. We had heard of it through an email sent by the generous Israeli artist, filmmaker and activist Udi Aloni, who had extended an invitation to gather with others for a reception in his studio after the screening.
ARNA'S CHILDREN tells the story of a theatre group that was established by Arna Mer Khamis. Arna comes from a Zionist family and in the 1950s married a Palestinian Arab, Saliba Khamis. On the West Bank, she opened an alternative education system for children whose regular life was disrupted by the Israeli occupation. The theatre group that she started engaged children from Jenin, helping them to express their everyday frustrations, anger, bitterness and fear. 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. Now, he goes back to see what happened to them. Yussef committed a suicide attack in Hadera in 2001, Ashraf was killed in the battle of Jenin, Alla leads a resistance group. Juliano, who today is one of the leading actors in the region, looks back in time in Jenin, trying to understand the choices made by the children he loved and worked with. Eight years ago, the theatre was closed and life became static and paralysed. Shifting back and forth in time, the film reveals the tragedy and horror of lives trapped by the circumstances of the Israeli occupation.
We stayed in the theatre for the generous Q&A which immediately followed the film. Only when the lights went up did we notice that Jeffrey Wright and Glenn Close were also in the audience. We were impressed with their commitment, whether professional or human, but not more than we were with the fact that the festival director was there. Peter Scarlet is responsible for this very large operation showing a number of films simultaneously in widely-spread venues, but he was there to announce the picture and stayed with the filmmakers throughout the discussion after, eventually participating in it.
Even for people who think of themselves as pretty familiar with the issues and the reality of the subject of this magnificent documentary, the film was shattering, and the emotional experience was only made more distressing by a number of things we heard from the director and producers after. One of the revelations was that of all the little boys who had grown up working with Arna in her theatre group, only one survives today.
We were both made physically sick by the emotions tapped that afternoon, and we agreed together that we were unable to imagine going anywhere at that moment, even to be among people who would understand what we were feeling.
There is almost certainly no reason to think that the insanity and horror being visited upon "the other" in the Middle East will end in our time. Films like this may occasionally awaken hope that, were enough people able to see it, the revelation of the humanity and misery of our victims would be sufficient to make us all intelligent peacemakers. This film could change the world, but, except for the incredibly small number already pretty much aware of what's going on, people will not see it. If we survive our times, "Arna's Children" may some day be seen in the same way we see the evidence of other monstrosities, like "The Diary of Anne Frank" - after the fact, but with great reverence.
I'm very sorry, but I see no reason to be optimistic about the possibility that the people of this country or of its client Israel will regain consciousness and reason in time to avoid even the destruction of their own societies, to say nothing of the mortal damage being done to those of others.
Ok, maybe I'm just depressed today. Ask me how I feel about it tomorrow.
[image from the Arna site]