Arna’s Children, by Juliano Mer-Khamis, documents on film his mother’s project, The Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp and the people who live there over a span of 20 years.
The film presents a very clear image of how life in the refugee camp is like the camera: shaky at times. He portrays a realistic picture of individuals fighting, resisting and even coping in an oppressive backdrop of colonisation.
The raw camera captures the life of Jenin residents from the time they are children to adulthood, roughly 20 years, making the viewer quite familiar with the people. Through several long shots, those children’s personalities – that the camera follows into adulthood – are revealed as their growth is closely followed.
In a powerful opening scene, an old woman with deep wrinkles creased on her face wearing the Palestinian kufeyyah (scarf) on her head stands in front of an Israeli military checkpoint protesting about the siege on Jenin. “Let them pass by,” she shouts to Israeli soldiers. As cars honk to pass through, she pleads for them to honk louder and louder.
The narration reveals that this is Juliano’s mother, an Israeli Jewish activist, who after serving in the Palmach, an underground Jewish army established in 1948, joined the communist party and married the Palestinian Saliba Khamis and became an activist against Israeli occupation.
In one scene she recounts her past and her involvement in the Palmach “I was young and foolish,” she says.
Her extreme shift from a Zionist fighter to a pro-Palestinian activist is perhaps one of her most intriguing, yet unsettling aspects. If it wasn’t for her genuine care for the children and their mutual trust towards one another, one could’ve been sceptical of her endeavours.
Of course it wasn’t easy for the residents to accept her presence at first, and as the Jenin children later confessed, they at first thought that Arna and Juliano were Israeli spies.
Arna’s dedication and undeniable love is wrenching as the audience learns that she lost her hair during chemotherapy treatment. Despite her illness and her old age, Arna, is full of vigour and energy. Her belief in the project is undeniable and love for the children in the camp beams out of her.
The film includes many moving scenes as it follows the children from their early childhood, with their innocent young faces sometimes turning angry at the Israeli occupation and the abuse they suffer in a fresh endearing way.
In one scene, after one of the boys’ (Alaa's) house gets torn down he sits in the rehearsal room, in shock, disbelief, staring ahead, as Arna tells the other children what happened to him. “How do you feel?” she asks the young boy “Let your anger out and tell me how you feel.”
His friend, Youssef, more outspoken than him reveals his anger. “Imagine I’m an Israeli soldier,” she tells the boy “what will you do?” As he hits her, she tells him to let all of his anger out and he hits her even more.
Watching the children as they rehearse, their fates are narrated by Juliano, for most of these children later joined resistance groups and ended up being murdered while fighting the Israeli military during the battle of Jenin in 2002 during the Second Palestinian Intifada. Youssef, one of the students, committed a suicide mission against Israelis.
Jenin is under siege and for 5 years during which Juliano could not visit, but when gets a chance he listens to the people recount what happened. The room, where they used to rehearse was rubble. One of the Freedom Theatre’s students explained to Juliano that they used to shoot Israelis from holes made in the walls of this building.
Juliano returned to determined residents, who proudly talked about freedom from the occupation. The strength that they still have after the calamities they’ve faced is very inspiring. The spirit of resistance runs in their blood and gets transmitted from one generation to the next.
This hereditary spirit is evident in the end. The film concludes with a scene that mingles sadness with hope as the new generation of children in Jenin sing a Palestinian song, with that same powerful and hopeful gleam in their eyes.