Commemorating the Legacy of Slain Arab-Jewish Actor Juliano Mer-Khamis

Art/Violence, a film about the late Mer-Khamis who was murdered in 2011, portrays how a dream can keep on living if its bearer succeeded in planting it in the right hearts.

Juliano Mer-Khamis, actor, director, teacher and political activist, was murdered on April 4, 2011. A masked man shot him five times at close range near the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, which Mer-Jhamis had founded in 2006. The murderer was never captured and the motives for the killing remain unknown.

This information is shown in lines of text on the screen near the end of Art/Violence, a film created by Udi Aloni, Mariam Abu Khaled and Batoul Taleb. Aloni, the son of former minister Shulamit Aloni, is an Israeli director, writer and left-wing activist. Abu Khaled and Taleb are two of the students and actresses in the film, which documents and commemorates Mer-Khamis’ artistic and political work. They are also impressive proof that, even though the show is over once the curtain comes down and life ends with the death of a human being, the dream and idea can keep on living if their bearer succeeded in planting them in the right hearts.

But before I deal with this 75-minute film — which won the Cinema Fairbindet Prize at Berlinale 2013 (where it had its premiere screening), was screened at Israel’s Cinema South Festival and at the Jerusalem Film Festival and will be screened weekly at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque throughout August and September — I’d like to say a few words about Mer-Khamis. His mother was Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli woman who, among other activities, established and ran the children’s theater in Jenin during the 1990s. His father was Saliba Khamis, an Israeli Arab communist activist. Juliano served as a combat soldier in the IDF and studied acting at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts in the 1980s. Afterwards, he acted in many Israeli films, including those by Amos Gitai and Avi Nesher, leaving an impression on many filmgoers (myself included.) At the Haifa Theatre, he acted in “Madeleine,” a play about an Irish uprising whose implications for our region are clear, “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Othello.” Later, toward the end of the 1990s, he acted in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “A View from the Bridge” at Habima.

In the 2000s, his work as an actor and director of Israel’s stage and film ceased almost entirely (a loss to those media of an artist of rare quality, but also of stormy and uncompromising character.) He began working in Jenin, where he made a film about graduates of the children’s theater his mother had founded who became fighters in the second intifada. Afterwards, he founded the Freedom Theatre there. His link to Israel was not completely severed; until his last day, he taught at the Academy of Performing Arts in Tel Aviv and, in August 2010, he directed “Death and the Maiden,” by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, at the al-Midan Theatre in Haifa.

A feminine hope

Mer-Khamis himself appears in the film, though more in his own words, the results of his work and his inspiration than in his actual character. Perhaps this is because if he himself had appeared, his charisma would have taken over the screen. His sharp statements are directed toward the Palestinians, first of all. He calls upon them to get up off their knees and work to create a freedom consciousness inside the Israeli occupation and speaks of resistance through art. But he never ignores the Israeli side, nor does he concentrate on the injustices of the occupation, the restrictions on free movement or the roadblocks or the victims. He speaks about how Israel is waging a struggle to subdue Palestinian spirit and culture; we need only recall the recent closure order against the Al Hakawati Palestinian National Theater to understand what he was talking about.

The first one to speak in the film is Mer-Khamis’s 12-year-old daughter, Milay, who lives with her mother in Tel Aviv. She tells how, when she visited her father at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, nobody could tell which side she came from.

The film moves to the two student actresses, Abu Khaled and Taleb, who are following in his footsteps. If anyone thought that the Freedom Theatre would die with Mer-Khamis, Abu Khaled and Taleb have proven that they are capable of holding the torch high and carrying it on. They directed a production of Waiting for Godot together, playing Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo) themselves.

Abu Khaled says that while Beckett opposed the portrayal of those two characters by women, she feels he would change his mind if he were to see their production. It’s amazing to see how appropriate Beckett’s abstract and universal texts sound when applied to the situation in whch these two Palestinian actresses live and work. “We’ve lost our rights?” asks Taleb, and Abu Khaled, in clown makeup, answers, “We got rid of them.”

This is a film about occupation and oppression and the helplessness of human beings faced with them. That’s why the film, which documents mighty efforts alongside victims of violence, is so sad and depressing. The violence is not entirely of occupiers and oppressors, or of oppressed people rising up. It is also the violence of ancient traditions that attempt to stifle the spirit of freedom. At the same time, the film is full of hope. It has at least three women characters — Milay Mer, Mariam Abu Khaled and Batoul Taleb — who believe in the power of art, and they project a strong desire (with too-deep naivete) that the viewer interpret the diagonal slash between the words “Art” and “Violence” in the title as the word “despite.”

Nir Kafri