Juliano Mer-Khamis' Impossible Legacy Brought Alive in Rocket-torn Sderot

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

On April 4 of last year, Juliano Mer-Khamis, the activist son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father, was leaving the Freedom Theater in the West Bank town of Jenin when his car was flagged down by a masked assailant. The actor-director was shot dead. His infant son Jay was on his lap as he died.

This month, Sderot, a city less than a mile from Gaza that has been under constant rocket attack for some 10 years, hosted the annual Cinema South Festival. Five documentaries were awarded prizes in Khamis' name.

His former girlfriend Mishmish Ori, a tall, elegant Israeli in a vintage black dress and high heels, traveled from Tel Aviv with their 11-year-old daughter Milay, the eldest of Khamis' four children, so that she could present the award for one of the films.

"Thank you for continuing my father's journey," said the pretty girl as she handed lilies to Guy Davidi, an Israeli who co-directed "Five Broken Cameras" with Emad Burnat, a Palestinian.

The title refers to the bashing Burnat's cameras took, a metaphor for the blows he, his family and his community suffered during the years-long face-off between their West Bank village of Bil'in and the Israeli military and settlers.

"Our cooperation was natural, not political. But it also was complicated," says Davidi, in his soft-spoken way.

Israeli authorities gave Burnat a rare travel permit by to attend the screening, but he called that morning to say he had lost the needed documents.

Khamis' widow Jenny, a Finnish activist he married after he and Ori separated, and the mother of his son Jay -- as well as twins who were born after he was killed, wasn't there either. Their absences are complicated too.

"I hadn't intended to speak today. But I want to tell you something," Davidi said to Milay as he accepted the prize. "My father also died when I was a child of 10, which changed my lifebut it eventually led me on a different and special path in life. I hope you too find a special path along your journey."

Unique journeys in a complex land

As far as unique journeys in this complex land go, Milay's father certainly set the bar high. The product of a love story eventually turned sour between a Jewish pioneer-turned-activist for Palestinian rights and a Christian Arab leader of the communist party in Nazareth, Khamis served as a paratrooper in an elite Israeli army unit. He wound up in a military jail for refusing orders to drag an elderly Palestinian from his car.

He fit in everywhere and nowhere. "I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish," he once said in an interview. Yet both sides viewed him with suspicion. Muslim extremists in conservative Jenin went one further and accused him of being a spy.

Khamis lived between Jenin and the coastal city of Haifa. In Jenin, he co-founded the Freedom Theater with Zakaria Zubeidi, once the military head of the militant al-Aqsa Brigades. Khamis inspired Zubeidi to put down arms and rely on what he called "cultural resistance" against Israel instead.

The children at the theater school adored Khamis. Their parents, less so: Many felt he was an unwelcome proselytizer for Western values, because he encouraged their daughters to act alongside boys.

Khamis is believed to have been murdered by a militant with ties to Hamas, but to date, no one has been charged.

Gunned down "for crossing impossible barriers"

"It was a personal and a collective tragedy for us," says filmmaker Danae Elon, a friend of Khamis'. She teaches at Sderot's Sapir College, which organized the cinema festival and curated the documentary competition. "He was gunned down for crossing impossible boundaries and for trying to prove to us all that, through faith and through art, everything is possible."

Outside the movie hall, besides signs pointing in the direction of the reinforced shelters, a reggae band played under a white tent. The lead singer, a young Ethiopian immigrant in a faded T-shirt, channeled Bob Marley. Students from Sapir mixed with a smattering of locals and dozens of hip Tel Avivis who had driven south to watch films and dance barefoot in the early summer heat.

Inside, filmmaker Emad Burnat's story unfolded, in a sobering tale of Israel's separation barrier bisecting Bil'in. Bulldozers uprooted centuries-old olive trees and soldiers threw tear gas at unarmed protesters, while aggressive settlers drove up with furniture and mobile homes. Burnat filmed it all.

In one surreal scene, soldiers came to the door of his home and insisted that he turn off his camera because he was in a "closed military area." "But I am in my own home," he replied.

The film won the Sundance World Documentary Directing Award in 2012 and opens in limited release in Israel next month. Festivals in most Arab countries refuse to screen it because it was co-directed by an Israeli.

Meanwhile, Ori took Milay out of the screening to see the other film playing down the hall, something about kung fu. "It is too soon," she explains, for the young girl to see the images depicted in "Five Broken Cameras." "Too raw."

How Ella died

Afterward, a cocktail party was held in the courtyard of Ella Hall, named for one of the 13 Israelis killed by Qassam rockets in recent years.

Ella Aboukasis was on her way home from a Bnei Akiva youth group activity when the warning sirens caught her unprepared. She died, at age 17, shielding her 10-year-old brother Tamir.

At her funeral, her father read a passage from a letter she'd once written to him: "Sometimes we tend to forget that life will be over one day, and we don't know when that day will come."

Students sip limoncello and munch on chocolate rugelach, wading through their mixed emotions about the film. One young man, just out of the army, was defensive: The portrayal of the soldiers as heartless wasn't fair. He was there. Another wished there had been more focus on the Israeli activists who joined the Palestinians in the fight.

Questions fly. How did the co-directing work? Is this the story of Burnat, whose voice is heard throughout and who filmed most of the scenes? Or that of Davidi, who edited years' worth of footage, creating a cohesive narrative, and wrote a lot of the script? Whose story is it?

"We are all part of one story," answered filmmaker Elon, simply.
On blue beanbags scattered on the grass, Ori and her friends smoked and made lazy small talk. Davidi talked about the concept of victimhood. He doesn't believe in it. He has tired of the never-ending debate over who is the ultimate victim in this struggle. The conversation flows to the Freedom Theater. Just last week, Israeli soldiers arrested Nabil Al Raee, the theater's art director, in a nighttime raid. He has been denied access to a lawyer. A week earlier, co-founder Zubeidi was seized - by Palestinian Authority forces.

"Do you want to hear me sing? Hebrew or Arabic or English?" Milay asks, prancing around the adults, overexcited by all the attention. She flips her long hair and belts out Adele, her sultry voice belying her young age.

Tomorrow, she and her mother will accompany the Freedom Theater actors as they fly to Berlin to perform "Alice in Wonderland."

"Things have not been that great since my father was killed," she says. "But the theater helps me be strong. They miss him too." Milay has a small role in the troupe's next production – "Waiting for Godot."

"I play a person who comes and says Godot will be arriving. Only he never does arrive. Which is a bummer," she explains.

According to a study carried out at Sapir several years ago, some 75 percent of the Sderot population is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of rocket attacks on the city. What does that look like, one wonders.
Now, outside the cocktail party, the reggae band plays on – "Iron Lion Zion," croons the singer. And the youngsters dance and twirl.

Juliano Mer-Khamis, the subject of Art/Violence.Credit: Reuters
Students from Sapir mixed with a smattering of locals and dozens of hip Tel Avivis enjoying the start of summer.Credit: Doron Greenwald

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