Sonia Nettnin: Film Review - Arna's Children
Film Review: ARNA’S CHILDREN
By Sonia Nettnin
The film ARNA’S CHILDREN, opened the third annual Chicago Palestine Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday.
It is a documentary about Juliano Mer-Khamis’ mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, and her creation of a theater group for the Palestinian children of Jenin Refugee Camp, West Bank. Directed by Juliano Mer-Khamis and Danniel Danniel, the film is in Arabic with English subtitles. It won best documentary feature at the Tribeca Film Festival 2004.
Arna shows the children of Jenin that creativity is a form of resistance to Israel’s occupation. Whether they paint on canvas or bring a character to life on stage, they transform conditions of oppression into expressions of the human spirit.
“Why are all the children free and I am not?” is a line from a song the children sing during a performance about the “green fields of my beloved Palestine.” A girl, 11-years-old with long brunette hair, stands under the gold, stage light. She wears a light-green, chiffon dress. A silver, sparkling tiara is placed on her head.
Applause and cheers from the audience.
The film footage is a flashback to an early theater performance by this group of children. Juliano Mer-Khamis worked with his mother in the Jenin Theater. From 1989 through 1996, he filmed the children’s workshop sessions and rehearsals. Although the film is about his mother’s life work, Mer-Khamis takes the audience on a journey through time. People see that the harsh realities of life under occupation have psychological effects on Palestinian youth. Life conditions bring tragic consequences and the film probes the Israel-Palestine conflict through their life accounts.
“This is my mother Arna,” narrates Mer-Khamis in the opening scene. He makes the audience aware that the film is a profile of his mom. With a kufiyeh wrapped around her head, Arna organized a demonstration at an Israeli checkpoint. She carries a sign: down with the occupation.
“Honk your horn!” she tells people in a stream of cars. In her sixties, Arna confronts an Israeli soldier: “You’re the face of the occupation.” Mer-Khamis gives people a concise picture of his mother’s personality and disposition. He reveals that his mother had terminal cancer and she lost her hair from chemotherapy treatment.
“Either the project finishes me or I die before the project,” she tells the camera. On stage at the Jenin Theater, Arna tells the audience there is no freedom without knowledge. Arna had the theater built with the $50,000 she was awarded through a foundation affiliated with the Nobel peace prize. Her contribution is an artistic form of resistance.
From a Jewish family, Arna grew up in a small village in Galilee. In 1948, Arna, became a member of the Jewish Brigade at 18-years-old. A few years later, she met her husband, Saliba Mer-Khamis. He was a Palestinian born in Nazareth. Her blue-green eyes - her most prominent, physical feature - are the color of the sea.
Another flashback takes the audience to the floor where Nidal and Youssef are crawling on hands and knees. “Meow, meow,” one of them sounds to the camera. Children encircle them and laugh. It is my favorite scene of the film - I never smiled so much in my life.
Mer-Khamis shows another clip of Arna with the children in the painting room. The year is 1992. Her golden brown hair, in a ponytail, drapes her back. Around her neck is her kufiyeh. Mer-Khamis introduces Ashraf and Alla. Arna tells the children that last night Alla (who is eight-years-old) slept at his aunt’s house. The Israeli army blew up his house. “We were told to leave the house, and then they blew it up,” he tells the camera. Ashraf, nine-years-old, lives next door to his friend, Alla and witnessed the horrific experience also.
“Now take anything you want, paint or paper, to express your feelings,” she says.
Alla paints a Palestine flag on top of a destroyed house. Despite his tragedy, he shows his transcendence. As he adds the finishing touches, the scene illustrates one apex of resilience is paint on paper.
After an Israeli television hears about the theater, they interview the children. One of the boys tells the reporter: “I want to play the Palestinian Romeo.” The film moves the audience through time smoothly. The seamless transitions between thirteen years of linear time are encompassed through a cyclical perspective. As a result, there are no distinct turning points in the film, because exposure to the occupation is constant. Moreover, the film has no pivotal climax and resolution, because the outcomes of several peoples’ lives are not a single scene. The film does a profound job of evoking emotion out of viewers at several, key moments. The interviews and the narration blend together and make it happen.
After the Israeli invasion of Jenin in April 2002, Mer-Khamis visits the boys, now young men. Although not a requirement to see the film, the book SEARCHING JENIN, edited by Ramzy Baroud, is an imperative reference about this invasion. It details the endless war crimes that took place. The film JENIN JENIN is a vital documentary about the invasion as well. With blocks of broken concrete behind them, a group of women tell Mer-Khamis: “We made one grave for 50 men.”
After five years away from the camp, Mer-Khamis sees people are in survival mode. The harsh, living conditions and warfare affect the people immensely and the film focuses on the men. The film shows the outcomes for all of the men. One person stated the Israeli army destroyed 300 houses in one week.
Point of view determines interpretation of the film. A viewer’s response to the film depends upon a person’s geographic location, ethnicity and political beliefs. Some thought-provoking questions for discussion are: what are the psychological effects of conflict, occupation and warfare; what happens to people when there is human and economic loss; and how does lack of safety and security affect people.
Throughout the film, Mer-Khamis’ use of light is a prominent motif. Natural light out of doors and windows is a strong visual. Then there is the indirect sunlight that shines into a room without a wall, behind a group of children who play on a swing set. At night, there are the blaring headlights from tanks, bright, streetlamp lights and ambulance lights. Stage light gives exposure to the children’s feelings about the occupation through performance. In the play, the characters resolve that if the princess can bring the sunset to the palace, she will be queen. Natural and artificial light are in the background visually, but in the foreground figuratively. The theme appeared intentional and innate.
Mer-Khamis takes the audience to his mother’s final days. In the hospital Arna – in her pink pajamas - sits up in bed. With the late morning light behind her, Arna is like an eagle, strong and proud. Her friends in Jenin asked her son to drive Arna to them for one, final visit.
She wears her kufiyeh in the van. “I don’t remember how I started wearing it,” she says. As she talks about her life, she describes it as wild. “If you’ve missed it, you’ve lost it,” she says.
In a bright pink coat, black eyeliner around her eyes, she enters the theater. Everyone is waiting for her. She cries as people kiss and hug her.
One message I take away from the film is life has meaning when there are people to love.