Juliano Mer-Khamis: Actor, film-maker and political activist who set up the Freedom Theatre on the West Bank
Saturday 09 April 2011
Juliano Mer-Khamis was an Israeli-Palestinian actor, film director and activist.
He refused to define himself as half-Israeli, half Palestinian, "I'm 100 per cent Jewish and 100 per cent Palestinian," he used to say. He gained international fame for his documentary Arna's Children, which chronicled the work of his mother, who founded an educational project for the children of the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank in the 1980s. He was murdered in the same camp when armed and masked men stopped his car and shot him as he was leaving the Freedom Theatre he had founded.
Juliano Mer-Khamis was born in 1958 in Haifa to communist activists, Arna Mer, who was Jewish, and a Palestinian, Saliba Khamis. At 18, he joined the Israeli Army "to upset my parents" but a violent fight with another soldier ended his service. A few years later, he said, he attempted to join the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Europe but was rejected.
While his mother was busy creating her project, Juliano Mer-Khamis was a budding theatre and film actor of some repute. British viewers may remember his role as Julio in The Little Drummer Girl (1984), based on the John Le Carré novel. His talent was undisputed but he was also known for his exceptional good looks and some public violent outbursts. The wild child of Israeli theatre worried his mother, who thought it might be a good idea involve him in voluntary activity in her Jenin project. Accordingly she asked him to start a theatre group for the camp's children.
Arna's Children followed the last days of Arna Mer-Khamis and her death from cancer, at the same time documenting the breathtaking, and often heart-breaking, process in which the young Palestinians in the youth theatre turn into the military leadership of the Jenin camp, culminating in the fierce fighting against Israeli forces during the Battle of Jenin in April 2002. The film won numerous international prizes, including the first prizes for documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Prague One World Festival and the Dutch Academy Awards.
Of the wide-eyed children taking delight in their theatrical productions in the early 1980s, and the ardent young Fatah activists who led their camp in 2002, only two remain alive. One of them, Zakaria Zbeidi, the commander of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Brigades in the camp, became the manager of the theatre in 2004 alongside Mer-Khamis. The message Zbeidi was sending out was clear: Mer-Khamis might be an Israeli citizen and half-Jewish, but he was under the protection of the Fatah forces in the camp.
Following Mer-Khamis's death Zbeidi said that a "big hand" had ordered the assassination, but would not expand. Israeli newspapersmade heavy hints towards Islamic factions who were unhappy with the liberal nature of the Freedom Theatre, which had suffered threats in recent years, and was set on fire a few months ago. A leaflet distributed in Jenin in April 2009 made death threats against Mer-Khamis, who said at the time: "I do not pretend to be a hero. Of course I am scared. But I'm not one for running away".
Mer-Khamis, the bad boy of the 1980s and '90s, had mellowed over the last few years. Losing his mother, the sights of death and despair in Jenin, fatherhood and family life, all conspired to "make me grow up", as he told me in a visit to London five years ago. Mer had two children, a boy and a girl, with his first partner, while his Finnish wife Jenny was pregnant with twins when he died.
A statement by his family said: "For Juliano, freedom emanated from within. Art, politics, love and life were one. He was a rebel with a cause, a cultural freedom fighter, an articulate advocate of simple truths." Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians, actors, directors, politicians and friends, attended his funeral in Kibutz Ramot-Menashe, where his was buried next to his mother. The funeral procession went on into the West Bank, to Jenin, where he had lived and died for the Freedom Theatre.
Juliano Mer-Khamis actor, film director and political activist: born Haifa, Israel 29 May 1958; one son, one daughter, married Jenny; died West Bank 4 April 2011.
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