Theater of Cruelty

Playtime is over: The students of 'Arna's Children'

The tragic Israeli/Palestinian conflict has generated at least a dozen unforgettable documentaries, but perhaps none as thought-provoking and emotionally devastating as Arna's Children. In 1989, Arna Mer Khamis, a former Zionist freedom fighter who had married a Palestinian Arab Communist during the 1950s, started an education and therapy project for Palestinian children traumatized by the violence of the Israeli occupation. With money from an "alternative Nobel peace prize," she set up a children's theater in the Jenin refugee camp. Her son Juliano Mer Khamis--an actor, stage director, and the co-maker (with Danniel Danniel) of this documentary--worked with her. The videotapes that he shot of Arna and her pupils during the next six years became the nucleus of the film. Arna died of cancer in 1995 and, a year or two later, the theater closed.

The film opens at a checkpoint outside Jenin, where Arna, who has gone AWOL from the hospital where she was receiving chemotherapy, has organized a demonstration against the Israeli soldiers. Her body is wasted, but her voice is vibrant; the soldiers are at a loss for what to do when confronted by her fury and frailty. "This is my mother Arna," says the director in voiceover, introducing us to the woman he originally thought would be the principal character in his documentary. But Arna, as her son has explained in numerous interviews, objected to being the focus. And so a film that begins as an inspirational narrative about a woman who fought on the side of the oppressed all her life becomes something much more complicated and controversial.

As the filmmaker introduces us to the children through the footage he shot in the early 1990s, he tells us matter-of-factly how some of them met their deaths less than 10 years later. An image from al Jazeera TV of Youssef, the talented child actor who wanted to play Romeo, lying dead on the street after he and his cousin Nidal committed a suicide attack in Israel--they shot four women to death and wounded many others--was the impetus for Juliano Mer Khamis to return to Jenin to find out what had happened to all of Arna's children and to finish the film. Having begun in a children's theater, Arna's Children ends in what is called the theater of war. During the second Intifada, some of Arna's former students became guerrilla leaders, and the filmmaker goes onto the front lines with them as they fight the Israeli army.

This is, without question, a partisan film. The filmmaker explains in voiceover that the policy of the Sharon government depends on creating the image of the Palestinian resistance as made up of monster terrorists--born evil and beyond human comprehension. Arna's Children shows that, quite to the contrary, it is the Israeli occupation that has created today's insurgents and suicide bombers by traumatizing children from the day they're born and placing an entire population in a virtual prison without hope of any kind of normal life. When Mer Khamis asks some of Youssef's former classmates about him, they tell him that Youssef had tried to rescue a little girl from a school that had been destroyed by an Israeli mortar attack. The girl bled to death in his arms, and from that day on he was a different person. When we see the video the Islamic Jihad organization made on the eve of Youssef's suicide attack, he looks like a broken-hearted, frightened adolescent.

The filmmaker says he made a deliberate choice not to identify the victims of Youssef and Nidal. In Israel, he explained (not in the film itself, but in a discussion after a screening), almost all the TV reports and documentaries focus on the victims, leaving the terrorists without names or human identities. He decided to do the opposite. In Israel, this strategy has proved more acceptable (the Israeli Left has championed the film) than it has been in the U.S. Arna's Children is not a wise film, but it is an absolutely necessary one.

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