'Mideast Can't Bear Bridge-building Figures Like Juliano Mer-Khamis'

Noted Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai joins leading Israeli cultural figures in mourning the death of Mer Khamis's assassination by masked attackers in Jenin on Monday

Leading figures in Israel's cinema and theater world expressed shock at the death of Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, shot dead on Monday outside a theater which he founded in a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Filmmaker Amos Gitai, who directed Mer in several of his films, including "Esther," "Berlin-Jerusalem," "Kippur," and "Kedma," told Haaretz: "He was a completely devoted person. Very few people in the world are devoid of contradictions, and he was one of them."

Juliano Mer-Khamis
Nir Kafri

Gitai said that Mer "tried to use his biography and his art to promote ideas that were important to him. He was the third generation to believe in that path.

"His grandfather, Dr. Gideon Mer, was a doctor at the Galilee in the early twentieth century, and believed he could bring people together through medicine. He mother Arna Mer was a brave woman, who married Saliba Khamis and believed she could build a bridge [between the two peoples] through intimacy," Gitai said, adding that "Juliano, despite his radicalism, continued that tradition."

"He wanted to continue his mother's life work at the Jenin refugee camp, [where] we filmed together the "Theater of Life" documentary," the Israeli filmmaker said, adding that, "unfortunately, today that name seems almost ironic. I guess our region can't suffer to have figures like that."

Director Avi Nesher, who directed Mer-Khamis in "Rage and Glory" in 1985, said: "It's so ironic that he was killed in a hail of bullets, in life like in film," he said, adding that that was how his "Rage and Glory" character found its end as well. "He was one of the most talented people I have ever worked with."

In the film, Mer plays the lead of "Eddie the Butcher," a Lechi resistance fighter, cold-blooded and professional, who organizes his friends to strike back at a British police headquarters in 1942.

"He empathized with that role more than any other he had ever undertaken," Nesher said, adding that Mer was "a limitless actor, taking everything to the extreme."

"I remember that during rehearsal he slept on the floor for five months, just because that's how Lechi fighters used to sleep," the Israeli director said, adding that "it was a film about a political act with a dangerous aspect. Not that I understand why he was killed, but I suppose he knew he was doing something dangerous."

Nesher added that at the time of the film's distribution it received considerable success in the United States, prompting many agents to attempt to sign Mer to a contract. "He was referred to as a kind of Antonio Banderas, but he would have none of it."

"I assumed he did so because of all of the reasons which brought him to where he has been in recent years. He gave up on one passion in favor of another. He was a phenomenal actor who could have reached very far, but chose to give that up. Not a lot of people would have done that," Nesher added.

Screenwriter and director Shmulik Kalderon told Haaretz on Monday that Khamis was supposed to portray the role of King David in a future film. "I spoke with him a few weeks ago. I told him about the part, and he was very happy and enthusiastic."

"He hasn't been on film for a while, and he was so eager, he was willing to just leave everything and come, Kalderon said, adding that he had looked for an actor who could portray a king. "I was dreaming of the picture in the paper, of a half-Jewish half-Arab actor, just like King David."

Commenting on Mer's murder on Monday, Michael Handesaltz, senior editor and theater critic for Haaretz, described Mer-Khamis as a "great actor, an extraordinary human being whose life-story is part of the tragic reality of this country", who in his death became "another tragic victim of life in the Middle East".