Weep for This Drama Club

Juliano Mer's film was made with a trembling hand, with the stammer of someone who does not know whom to mourn most: his mother, the children of Jenin or the trampled hopes of people yearning to be free.

"Arna's Children," script and directing: Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel; production: Anat Trabelsi and Peter van Huystee; photography: Juliano Mer Khamis, Hana Abu Shaada and Uri Shteinmintz; editing: Govert Janse and Obbe Verwer

It is enough to compare the couple"documentary film" and "feature film," to the couple "fictional literature" and "documentary literature," to understand that the cinema has no real need for a division between the fictional and the "real." This, at least, was proposed by Jean Luc Godard (following Andre Bazin) to distinguish the art of film.

Both the documentary film and the feature film confront us with a filmed reality of the same status. Whether the film follows a man running through a city's streets as part of a thriller, or whether the camera captures a man running through the streets of that same city as part of a documentation - in both cases, the result can be artistic. Fictional cinema and documentary cinema are both very personal genres that, at their best, are closer to Hebrew poetry than to prose (which is written, for the most part, to cite a late friend of mine, "like reports that good students submit to their teachers, with margins and decorations"). In any case, the best Israeli films are documentaries.

And while the "feature" films are again and again tangled up in knots in "the representation of reality" - that is, psychological stereotypes and "existential" seriousness - and in a desperate effort not to jump from one subject to another and, in short, lack the madness that poetry has, the Israeli documentary runs around, in spite of itself (even if its makers are faithful to some narrative line), by means of a camera and a recording machine, and they pick up bits and fragments: a plenitude that refuses to crystallize into "one."

Juliano Mer's film, "Arna's Children" - despite the burning desire to declare publicly: Go see it, if you still believe in demolishing houses, assassinating "wanted men," Chief of Staff Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon, his ass-lickers from the media - is a work of art, because it was made with a trembling hand, with the stammer of someone who does not know whom to mourn most: his mother, the boys from the Jenin camp or the trampled hopes of people yearning to be free.

Victims and heroes

Mer is not addressing the Jewish or Arab viewer. He is addressing those who do not know what a life without hope is. In this respect, the difference between intellectuals from the left, or "the man in the street," and even the Arab bourgeois in Cairo, is not so large, from our perspective. Therefore, he feels no need to take a definitive stance on whether the teenagers from the Jenin camp were victims or heroes. Ala', the most captivating character in the film, whom Mer managed to photograph at three different periods of his short life - the last time was after the bitter battle for Jenin, sometime before he was killed by the unit for accelerated procedures (arrest, trial and death sentence in the same second) - scorns everyone who represents the inhabitants of his world as victims. But this is only his position.

Mer does not decide: Victims and heroes are not mutually exclusive. Children who have no hope, children who, in their drama club, act out the bringing of the sun to a palace, children who sing about their right to freedom like all the children in the world, children like that, who end their lives so early because of their struggle for freedom - these children are both victims and heroes. Mer immortalizes a late-night argument about heroism and death between "graduates" of the battle, and he films the mothers whose eyes are dry of tears and does not ask them even once where they came from before arriving at the camp, from which village on the Carmel they were expelled, because the film is not about "Palestine." The film is about the pointless death of young people.

What is "cinematic" about Mer's shocking film? Above all, we recognize upon seeing the film (not as "meaning," but as part of the wealth of images) that the lives of the characters are short, too short. They are documented in films from rehearsals of the drama club for 10-year-olds, and then at the performance itself, and in a conversation about the club that was and about the nostalgia for the club that was, after the death of the its founder, Arna, when the boys are still 14 or 15. And afterward, there is footage of the brief deaths of the 17-year-olds, as they take care of the automatic machine gun and the automatic rifles and exchange information about a blockage in a gun barrel and changing the magazines.

On the screen, on the big screen, the transitions are between the ages, ostensibly far apart (What does a 17-year-old have to do with a 10-year-old?), but we do see how close the boy and the child are, closer to each other than they are to us, we who look upon the dead from a distance of so many wars and self deception. The face of the child is drowned in the face of the youth, and disappears in his corpse, lying in a row, in a sack, like the body of Ashraf, the charmer of the drama group, who was killed after conducting a hopeless gunfight through a hole he made in the wall of a building, and fired and fired and fired until he was pulverized and died.

A call to revolt

Mer is not in love with death, but with bringing back to life. I am the resurrection, says the film director. For this film is a revival of the dead: Arna, great Arna of the broken voice, who is imbued with faith, and the youths, Ashraf, Yusuf, Ala'. So strong is Mer's passion to capture the fleeting moment of a short life that he refrains, with a great deal of courage, from integrating pictures from his mother's lovely youth (after all, this is beautiful Arna from the Palmach) and thus he leaves her in our memory as a physical wreck, in a speech about freedom. And what emerges from the wreck of the body, from the final days of a life, between chemotherapy and morphine, is the human spirit, because the human spirit is the call to people to rise up.

This is what Juliano Mer has done. There is no superfluous talk here. His ability to escape from the films about "my mother and my grandmother never talked to me about menstruation, but it turns out that both of them got their first period at the age of 12," films the likes of which are being made more and more at the film schools, takes his work another step up on the ladder of Israeli documentary cinema.

Anyone who sees this film will no longer be able to escape to the verbal laundering of the military correspondents ("An Israel Defense Forces unit has killed three wanted men"). Anyone who sees this film will have to see little Ala' sitting on the rubble of his home after it was demolished by mistake (1992), and when the home of Ashraf, his playmate, was destroyed. Anyone who sees this film will have to see the little children of the Jenin camp presenting a fable about a man who went to bring the sun to a palace, and will see the laughing audience of youngsters - and then will see them as dead.

Mer tries to understand what happened to Yusuf, who suddenly decides to go on a suicide terror attack. The last member of the drama club, the one who remains without a living friend, later relates: A school was hit by an IDF shell. The teachers and the children fled. Yusuf ran to save a girl who was hit. She died, bleeding, in his arms. From that day, something broke in him.

Mer's advantage, in the eyes of the youngsters he interviews in the film, is not that he is an "Arab." This, in fact, confuses them. Their trust in him has nothing to do with this (after all, he is the son of Arna and the Palestinian Sleibeh Khamis). His advantage is rather in his identification with them, in standing by their side and not by the side of the army - and, above all, his mastery of the Arabic language. Mer's identification with the youngsters of Jenin, with their mothers, with their fathers, is neither a "Palestinian" nor a "Jewish" identification. The distance between Mer and the teenagers he mourns is not very different from the distance of many silent and weeping viewers of the film (many tears were shed at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, which arranged additional screenings of the film in a larger hall). In the fourth year of the intifada, the distance between many Israelis and Palestinians is the distance of language.

And me? Initially I intended to watch the screening of this film in Jenin. Amira Hass invited me to go there with her to watch a special screening there. I didn't go. What defines me as an Israeli is the feeling of shame in face of the Palestinians. Not guilt, shame.