Despite his appearances over the last two decades in some of Israel’s most critically-acclaimed features, Juliano Mer-Khamis’s name is not immediately recognised by most film buffs. One of Israel’s most talented actors, Mer-Khamis made global headlines because of his death, rather than his artistry.
On April 4th, in Jenin, the 52-year-old was shot five times by Palestinian militants outside a theatre he founded in the city’s refugee camp. The reason for his assassination is still unknown. But the Guardian reported on April 21 that he had offended local religious sensibilities several times, most recently with a planned production of a German play about teenage sexuality.
Juliano Mer-Khamis in this interview grasps at the self-definition of a Palestinian Arab Jew. Born in Nazareth to a Palestinian father and Jewish mother, his identity was largely rejected by two peoples. But he chose to embody as many of the contradictions his unique life narrative had afforded him, as he could possibly fit in. And more besides.
This interview was conducted by Arthur Neslen, in London in April 2006, and some portions were originally published in Red Pepper magazine. Neslen’s book about Palestinian identity, In your eyes a sandstorm: Ways of being Palestinian will be published by University of California Press in October.
- Joel Schalit
Arnas Children was firstly a film about a mother-son relationship. But how much was it also a film about the children of Jenin?
Juliano: I think it was about mother-sons. We have four mothers – my mother, Yousef’s mother, Mahmoud’s mother and Alla’s mother. It’s also about the children of Jenin because it’s also about the sons.
Were you trying to say in the film that all the children were in a sense parented by Arna? That Arna was the mother of Yousef and Mahmoud…
Juliano: The spiritual mother, the influential figure that influenced their way and choices in life, that’s why I call them Arna’s children
Was there a sense that you shared Arna with the children of Jenin?
Juliano: If I shared? Well, you know I’m almost 50, so for me, motherhood at this age is something different. She became more Arna than a mother at certain stages of your life. Once you cooperate with your father and your mother, aspects of motherhood and fatherhood lose their meaning and become more based on personal grown-up tendencies of trust and political views and stance. It’s not something genetic, or a family thing anymore. It’s not really sharing, it’s being part of.
Why didn’t your father make an appearance in the film?
Juliano: My father was in the film. My brothers were in the film. The girls of the theatre were in the film. I had a four and a half hour version of the film. Then I had to decide – a very painful decision – What is the film about? Is it about me and my family? Is it about my mother and us? Or is it about a certain clear thing I want to say? And I decided that the most important thing is the message. And everything was bent to this story of the children. I had to lose my father in the process, my brothers and also the girls of this film. I ended up with a theme: that this is a story of mothers and sons. I had a very strong emotional relationship with my mother. It was the spine of the film.
What do you think Arna would say if she could see the film?
Juliano: When Arna saw the rushes, she urged me, begged me, demanded that I stop filming. I said “Why?” She said: “because I smell a little bit of memorial nostalgic worship.” I said, ‘Well Mama, you see the rushes, this is not the film. From this I’m gonna dig exactly my story so don’t worry.” Two weeks before she died, she called me to her bed and demanded that if I made this film about the children, that she be used as an active part – not as a symbol, not in a memorial or nostalgic sense. I believe that I followed her request.
In the play that the children perform in the film, the theme seems to be bringing the sun to the palace…
Juliano: Of course. This story was written by Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian writer who was assassinated in ‘72 in Lebanon. It’s a very metaphorical play for the situation in Palestine. The kids related to it and understood it very quickly. They were emotionally moved by the message of the play which is the also message of the film.
And that is?
Juliano: And that is breaking the walls and bringing the sun – hope, freedom. This is what sun represents for me and unfortunately, you can even say that in this play, there were also prophetic things for the future. We have now a wall – a real wall. In those days the wall had not been built.
Could there also be a double meaning with bringing ‘the sun’ to the palace and bringing yourself – the son of Arna to the theatre?
Juliano: No, this is your interpretation, not mine. You have also to be good at English to relate sun to son in the semantic way of languages. No, I don’t in any way compare myself to the sun. I didn’t have any intention of doing this project… If you’d asked me one or two years ago, it was not a continuous vision or path that I’m… No, no, no.
Was there for you – do you know the word symmetry – was there a symmetry for you in seeing so many of the mothers crying for their sons on camera while you were crying for your mother off camera?
Juliano: I never cried for my mother. And I think losing her was me blowing my ability to mourn the loss. (interviewer’s note: untranscribed passage about sitting shiva). I could not handle the sorrow. I could not get out the tears. It was beyond that. The film was in a way a therapeutic process for her death, and with the death of my friends. And I remember myself crying for the first time after five years. Only then could I cry for her death. But the difference between me and the mothers is that I have a mediator – my camera. I have my art. They don’t have. So for them I believe its much harder. And tears…
There’s more I could say about that…
Juliano: Go on, say, say! We have time. It’s interesting.
Okay, does it mediate or distance?
Juliano: Distance, but the mediator is distancing you. You mean the camera and the art? That’s what I’m saying.
Well you need that as a filmmaker and as a journalist you need that distance. But is there also a danger that you can distance yourself from the mourning, which is human?
Juliano: That’s what I did, exactly. I found that it saved my life. It’s like the life jacket. I knew that the camera distanced me from this deep, deep sorrow. You know I’m also an actor and in my art I believe that acting is first, methodology and then, ideology; meaning what I mean.
You know, when I was shooting Alla’s body still with the smell of the flesh, one eye was on the camera and the other eye was crying. I felt pretty bad because one eye was really working – framing, watching the light within the frame, checking the sound, totally journalistic, cold-blooded work. But the other eye was trembling and crying. Now this dualism or dichotomy or schizophrenia is something every actor develops since he became aware of his acting abilities. You know this clichÃ© that the actor was crying on his mother’s grave and the other side of his brain was saying, “remember this moment because it could be used one day on the stage” and this is filmmaking, especially documentary.
How dangerous was the filming at different points?
Juliano: Well, this is a little bit like praising yourself which I don’t like to do because my danger compared to what those guys who’re doing the shooting are going through is really nothing. I’m not so brave, I think that once you’re there, you don’t deal with your fears. Only when you’re asked by journalists, you become aware of how ‘brave’ you are.
Well you took risks.
Juliano: It’s for you to say. You want me to say if I took risks?
Anyone who sees the film can see that you were risking your life…
Juliano: Yeah and I will keep on risking it because I had no choice anymore except to leave or surrender.
I read one interview where you talked about being joined to Israeli society by the navel, like there was an umbilical chord between you.
Juliano: I took it out. It was on my site. It stayed there?
I saw it somewhere when I was researching.
Juliano: I didn’t say that and she [the journalist] is my friend and I asked her: ‘Why did you write such a thing?’ She said, ‘Oh I thought that presenting you like that would balance what you were saying about Israeli society and keep you as an inner voice and not as an outer voice.” And I said, “But I’m not connected to Israeli society by my ‘tabur’” as we say in Hebrew. She said, “Yes but you meant…” I said that yes I am working with Israeli society, of course I am a part of it but I am not connected in that way and she said “Sorry but… du-du-du” and this is your answer.
I am part of Israeli society but it’s to spit in the well. If I say I reject it, I have nothing to do. I work there and I’m an actor. It’s my language. I’m sure I internalised a lot of aspects of the culture – although I reject most of it. I still think this is more an apparatus of occupation than a culture. It’s still not defined as a culture because culture still has many more aspects in social life which have not yet been created in israel. But I’m part of it.
Do you feel more Israeli or Palestinian?
Juliano: Palestinian (firm). Definitely.
Do you have any religious faith?
Juliano: Religious faith?
Do you believe in God?
Juliano: No, no. I don’t believe in nothing. Palestine is the most secular political term in the Middle East.
Juliano: Because it’s a secular society. It’s the only democracy in the Middle East, the only democracy. Democracy under occupation is a phenomenon, no? Did you hear of such a thing in history? No. And when the poor people practice democracy, they’re punished for that.
Do you think the resistance in Jenin was legitimate, was justified?
Juliano: Which kind of resistance?
That was going to be my next question.
Juliano: I distinguish between suicide attacks and legitimate guerrilla actions and guerrilla warfare in the territories. This is my definition.
Okay, and you say that as a Palestinian Arab Jew.
Juliano: That’s nice way to put it. Palestinian Arab Jew. I like this definition. Yeah I say it as a Palestinian Arab Jew. I think by the Geneva Convention, you have the right to resist occupation by a foreign force and all means are legitimate according to the Geneva Convention, not according to me.
Then was it maybe dangerous – for them – to have shown some of the faces of fighters in Jenin on screen?
Juliano: Yeah. The way I edited the film with Daniel – we did it together – every rough cut we had, I had meetings with all the organisations to ask which faces to cover, which scenes to take out. So in the end, the film did not endanger anybody. The material which is sensitive was destroyed.
Some of the footage was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen – you know the fighting sequences, and that’s obviously because people trusted you and you’d built up a long term relationship with them.
Juliano: Yes, I lived with them for six months, with the Al-Aqsa Brigades night and day for six months.
Do you think that journalists should be trying to cultivate long term contacts with…
Juliano: Yeah. That’s the only way that you can get to the real trust and then there’s two things that the journalist goes through. First, his point of view changes – becomes more authentic and more integrated with what’s happening, even if he’s unaware of it most of the time. Secondly, people open up to him and trust him more. This is the only way to bring the real stories out. It took me time to clean my eyes, from my brainwashing. From the dirt I was coming with, if you understand what I’m saying. This is something between me and myself. It took me time not to be associated with all the images and the propaganda.
Was there a reason why you didn’t talk to Alla, Yousef and the others directly about the politics of Jenin, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs and Hamas?
Juliano: Yeah, I thought that the story itself, the empathy that those faces create, the emotion that you exercise through the film is much deeper and stronger than the political statement any of them could make. Maybe this is too psychological, or philosophical but you know I was aiming in this film…
First of all, I’m coming from features, I’m not a documentary director. I’m a features editor and all my life, I had nothing to do with documentaries. So my ideas about documentaries came from the features side – the characters, the story, identification, catharsis – you know, this is the rule of features. So this is how I built the story. But the effect I wanted to create was awareness.
I think people have enough knowledge, or can get information easily. What they’ve lost a little bit is the ability to be in real solidarity. We say in Hebrew “to get your stomach burning.” I was aiming there. That’s why I thought any kind of statement will distract from this punch in the stomach.
What was the reaction of people in Jenin to the film? Were there any criticisms, from anyone who was in the film?
Juliano: I had problems during the film. First, the scene of Mahmoud’s mother, people wanted this scene to be cut. They said: “they’re going to use it against us. Not everyone is going to understand your dialectics there.” And they wanted to take out the scene of Zakaria and Alla when Alla says, “You did nothing” and Zakaria says, “You got out with your pants.” This discriminates against the memory of Alla.
That was the argument, but in the end, I decided to keep it in the film because I didn’t know what the reaction would be. But I trusted them and I was right, nothing happened. It’s a cult film. Kids have the film in their pockets you could say. I’m talking about kids aged 12, 15, it’s been shown on all cable TVs twice a month at least. This is the biggest compliment for me. It was very important for me that people in the camp would like this film.
What do you think that the response would be like if it was shown on national television in Israel?
Juliano: It will never be shown.
If it had proper proper commercial distribution then…
Juliano: No way, no way
One day… but if it happened today what would be the response?
Juliano: Where the film has had private screenings, they blame me for humanising terrorists, and supporting terrorism. Many of them say that I’m lying in the film, not showing the real truth. They say that my mother and the theatre both generated violence and that the theatre was linked to their choices to become a guerrilla, or, in other words, terrorist.
Most Israelis rejected the film. Why? They reject any information that opposes their monolithic thinking. But on the other hand I must say that large sectors of Israelis were astonished, were shocked by the film because in the same way that information is not coming here, it’s not going there. People don’t know what is happening.
I’ve been cruising around the world for the last month and you know, on airplanes, on trains you read newspapers and magazines. All the time, my friends in Jenin and Nablus tell me this one was killed and that one was wounded, and I’m looking in the newspapers and not one word. Not even lies, just nothing.
Suddenly I woke up with big pictures of the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on the front page of the London Evening Standard. Top story, what was the headline? ‘Month of peace cut off by suicide attack in Tel Aviv’. I said, “Look, Jews must be writing this newspaper because this is humiliating propaganda for any intelligent person with access to the internet. How can you write about a month of peace when 26 Palestinians were killed. How can you write such a vicious lie?
There’s a common narrative of the conflict that it’s about Palestinian terror and Israeli self-defence.
Juliano: And when you get this suicide attack without context, or history, of course you can explain it as a genetic or Islamic culture or people who’re looking for virgins…
Or they teach them to hate us.
Juliano: Oh yeah.
Your film was so important because it completely undermined that.
Juliano: Many people asked me during this screening, “Why are the children of Palestine being so incited?” I said, “People please, you see Alla at the age of nine sitting on the ruins of his house. Is there a stronger text of incitement than that?”
A lot of people would have expected a flowering of art and cinema to emerge from this Intifada but it seems to be just beginning now with films like yours and Paradise Now, also Route 181 and Divine Intervention. But why do you think there have been so few? Is it just the power of the Israeli Film Foundation? And if so, how does that explain the lack of uptake abroad?
Juliano: As the conflict has intensified, you can less and less use Israeli money for films. We have all been totally dependant on foreign money and crews or Israeli money but now we are totally refusing this – or at least I have been since Arna’s Children. Recently, billions of Euros for a big project of cultural co-operation between film-makers in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt called Greenhouse was frozen by the European Union. So there’s no money and you really have to find the audience for your films around the world.
I was calling my friends, and saying, “Hey, guys, did you know that now the Jews are ruling the world?” They said: “Boker tov, good morning Juliano.” I said: “No, no, I’m serious. Remember when I told you that it was anti-Semitic propaganda?” and they said,“Yeah, yeah we knew you didn’t believe in this conspiracy,” and I said “Guys, they’re ruling the world! I’m coming from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Berlin, Stuttgart…. Jesus, it is really this!”
It’s a very dangerous thing to say because immediately you will be called an anti-Semite. But I was one of the people in Israel who really rejected the idea that there was a very strong Jewish power pulling the strings, controlling the media and trying to shut down and silence criticism. But I’ve been witnessing and experiencing exactly this. It’s been a discovery for me, and I think this is one of the reasons films like Jenin Jenin, Arna’s Children and Since You Left are not being shown on Channel 4 or Arte.
Jenin Jenin was supposed to be broadcast, but it was cancelled at the last moment, two years ago. Since You Left was rejected from almost all the festivals. This is why Palestinian films are not flourishing.
What about Paradise Now?
Juliano: I think it had an enormous effect in showing the Western audience the real people behind the image that America and Israel created of a suicidal and bloodthirsty Islamic monster. This was a very important achievement and I hear it from people here. But the film was damaging in other ways. Its framework is the Western-American way of thinking – that those two nice guys, very human and sympathetic people, are victims not of the Israeli occupation but of a cruel, vicious Islamic net that is recruiting suicide bombers. This is very dangerous. It does not reflect reality. It reflects American and Israeli ideology.
The lead character was unrepresentative. His father may have been a police informer but you never saw the reaction to him at school or in his house. Jenin is the capital of suicide bombings and I knew eight friends who became suicide bombers. None of them fitted into the light emotional tendencies of those two.
Can you tell me about what’s happening with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin now, the realities it’s changing, the obstacles you’re facing?
Juliano: In Jenin – especially in Jenin – something is happening, in the good sense of the word. There is a universalist discourse, an international happening. Zakarias Zubeidi’s influence has led to a international campaign around a new kind of resistance. So we decided – a few friends – Jonathan Stanzac, Dror Feiler, me and Tali Fahima to take charge of the office in Haifa in hopefully five months. We decided that we want to be part of this third intifada which is on the way in a way to hopefully influence at least some of the people in Jenin camp, towards non-violent, cultural international resistance.
We believe that the theatre can mobilise a lot of forces together. The most important thing is that you have thousands of damaged, destroyed, distorted children, much much worse than in the first Intifada. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress are even worse than that. You know, symptoms are always in a context. They can appear in a very vicious form and the boys of Jenin especially are experiencing these. They are the most victimised section of the community. There is almost 180 degrees between the girls and the boys.
What do you think will characterise the third intifada?
Juliano: The third intifada I believe started with the elections… I think it was a clear political vote. Most Palestinians voted not for the Quran but first to get rid of this fake semi-state, fake negotiations, fake authority, corrupted PA. It was all wiped out in this election. The other message was that we’re not going to cooperate any more with building our own enclaves. While the PA was there, there was an illusion of looking for ways to solve things non-violently, that Israel is really looking for ways to settle things in an agreement. This is a big lie.
So what would a third intifada would look like?
Juliano: A non-violent intifada. All intifadas started non-violently. I was there when the last one started. It started with stones. Alla bought his first weapon three months after that. He sold his mother’s gold bracelet to buy a rifle from a Russian immigrant soldier. Anyway I believe that thousands of hungry Palestinians are going to march towards the fence. Israel is going to be forced to shoot because Israel shoots Israelis marching towards the fence. You know three people were injured [recently], one in the eye. Matan Cohen.
So they’re going to march and they’re going to be shot, 20 people a day, and then the suicide actions are going to come in hundreds. Then Israel is going to reoccupy the West Bank and Gaza and we’re going to go back to the starting point of the occupying forces’ full responsibility for the inhabitants and full occupation of Palestine as it was in ’67 and hopefully this catastrophe will shake the world. Maybe something will change. But the real change might also come from a real crisis around Palestine. Iraq? Iran? I don’t know. But we are going through a bad script.
Do you feel any cause for optimism?
Juliano: My hope was seeing the whole nation with a collective subconscious voting for its new kind of resistance. This is something we should not underestimate. It is a nation that was cut into cells, and unable to communicate with itself, that could not relate information or change. It was cut to pieces. Still, it could collectively create something together. This is hope because the elementary ties between people had survived harsh circumstances. When this falls apart, it is Lebanon. Everybody fights everyone for a sack of food. This is the danger and at the last moment before it happened, people took over and there was a big change in Palestine. It almost went to people stabbing themselves for a sack of flour. The theatre was hard. I still work with Hamas, but it’s ironic because Hamas is Hamas at the end of the day. The opening was on the 19 February – the day that the Hamas government was sworn in and we had Hamas in the theatre. It was a very encouraging and optimistic thing.
I was in Bil’in that day and there was a strange mood.
Juliano: It’s like an equation which has many things missing from it. I’m also encouraged that around the world things are happening – not on the political level. It’s not yet turned into a real political movement, there is no boycott, or embargo but it’s starting. I hope that people will get it done quicker because people are going to die here soon. Europe is stuck with its guilt feelings, with American influence, and with the Jewish lobby all around. God help us, as we say in Hebrew and Arabic. I have to move.
This article is licensed to Souciant courtesy of Babylon Times.