« Arna’s children », a documentary about the Freedom Theatre in Jenin

Dramatheray as a tool for conflict transformation?

Claske Dijkema, 18 November 2010


  • conflict transformation
  • social transformation
  • Israel
  • Palestine


Speaking Tour « Art for Freedom, Art for peace », Grenoble 16 November 2010.

This film tells us many stories simultaneously. It is the life story of the Israeli activist Arna Mer-Khamis, told by her son Juliano. It is also the story of the Freedom Theatre where children in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin were given the opportunity to express their sentiments of frustration and anger but also to play the roles of princesses and kings. And it is the story of the boys that one day play theatre and 10 years later play a role as combatants in the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. What has motivated them to make this choice and what does it mean for drama as a tool for conflict transformation?

The story of Arna

This film tells us many stories simultaneously. It is the life story of Arna Mer-Khamis told by her son Juliano. She is a social activist motivated by a strong disapproval of the military occupation in the Palestinian territories. She has transformed this hatred in a creative force, through working with children in the refugee camp of Jenin. In drama sessions she lets them express their experience of the occupation, the humiliation by the soldiers, the violence they witness and the destruction of property. A moving image in the film is that of Alaa, who is sitting in the middle of the rubble that once was his house. It had been destroyed the night before by an Israeli bomb. The next moment in the film you see his incapacity to express his emotions in a theatre class. Arna asks him whether he is angry. Emotionless, he says he is. She proposes to play the Israeli army and invites the children to act out against her. Others respond for Alaa, like his neighbour Yussef, who jumps up to hit and push her. Alaa remains silently seated on the bench. Using paint in another workshop, he draws a house with a Palestinian flag. Others are given the opportunity to rip up pieces of paper to express their frustration. Arna’s work allows them to unlock their emotions that can become self-destructive if they remain closed inside.

The story of the theatre

The film also tells the story of the the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, where the classes take place. It was built with the prize money that Arna received as a winner of the Alternative Nobel Peace prize in 1993. She and her son Juliano propose art therapy and drama classes which lead to yearly performances bringing together the local community. After Arna’s death and at the beginning of the Second intifada in 2000, the theatre is abandoned and destroyed. Its new function is that as post for Al-Aqsa brigade fighters. We see in the film the same youth that performed in the theatre, now acting as combatants.

The story of Alaa, Yussef and their friends

The third storyline therefore follows the lives of the youth in the refugee camp in Jenin. The films insists on the transition from child to adulthood in different roles they assume in both periods. As children, they are given the opportunity to be princes and princesses on stage, escaping their daily realities and for a moment become whatever they like to become, because on stage all is possible. This period stands in contradiction with their access to adulthood when society asks them to assume responsibility. In the film, Arna’s son Juliano, traces the path of the boys that we saw acting in the theatre. A number have become fighters for the Al-Aqsa martyrs brigade during the battle of Jenin, when the entire camp was under siege of Israeli soldiers. You see the discrepancy in might when on the one hand tankers roll slowly but steadily down the streets, able to destroy any person or house on its way and on the other hand the combatants armed with rifles, hiding behind broken walls and shooting on the tanks without any impact. Some of the boys of the freedom theatre were killed by Israeli military fire and Yussef and his friend Nidal chose to become “martyrs” through a suicide attack. A friend later comments that Yussef felt being in prison already and that “if you are dying anyway it is better if the enemy dies with you”. During the film we follow Alaa, whose house was destroyed, and who now is one of the leaders of the al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade. Five minutes later in the film he also dies. Those who are left look back on their experience in the theatre as a time of innocence when escaping was still possible. You understand that fighting has become their only option to keep some dignity.

At the end of the film we are left with many questions, what happened to the theatre since? What became of the girls we see in the drama classes? If most boys chose to become fighters or were killed, what conclusions should we draw for art as a tool for personal and social transformation?

The Freedom Theatre Now

From 2003-2005 the Freedom Theatre has been rebuilt. It proposes many activities and more and more people are joining them because they hear that something is going on. For example, Taiseer Khatib, a Palestinian anthropologist involved with the Freedom Theatre in Haifa, gives writing classes, exploring new ways of expression for people living with conflict. He explains how difficult it was for youth to talk about their experience in the 2nd intifada. It took a long time before they started writing and “opening their hearts that they kept close from 2000”. Taiseer proposes the young people to start with reading texts that capture the experiences of Palestinians, such as those written by Ghassan Kanafani. “First they started to tell what happened, that their houses were destroyed, that their uncles were imprisoned for 50 or 100 years”. He remarks a difference in the narratives of boys and girls where the former focus on events, the latter integrate more emotions and reflections on personal experience in their stories. A challenge Taiseer observes in working with children and their families in the refugee camp in Jenin is to convince families to allow their daughters to come to the theatre. This situation has changed much since the start of the initiative by Arna in the eighties. Religion has come to play a much larger role in life of the Palestinian community. Since there is not much opening in the political arena, people look for something else to find refuge and hope in. Taiseer notes that “religion is the only thing there is in an oppressive society”. He also tells us though that some of the girls we saw in the film on the theatre stage have become doctors and pursued higher education. Why has the author of the film left out their stories?

Artistic expression as a tool for social transformation

Taiseer wonders what the potential of theatre is for transformation. Despite Arna and Juliano’s impressive work to unleash youth’s creative force, they were either destroyed or became destructive themselves if we can interpret fighting in such a way.

To answer this question, we should make the difference between levels of transformation: Personal transformation, social transformation and conflict transformation.

Drama is an interesting tool to work on one’s self-confidence, it helps to construct a personality and to overcome a sentiment of powerlessness. A personal shift can take place from that of a spectator undergoing life to that of an actor, giving a sense to one’s life. According to Benoît Capponi, a former employee of Prémol Theatre, which has both an artistic and social function in Grenoble, theatre has the capacity to impact more levels than only the personal one. Drama is a collective experience and things can happen within the group. In role-playing for example, one can act to be free and transform social life on the stage. In the film we see boys and girls play the roles of cats and dogs in theatre class, in allusion to the roles of oppressed and oppressor. Children learn that these are roles that can be reversed. To what extent can what happens on the stage be transposed to the outside world? This is a much greater challenge. Kareem Amira, director of Aida refugee camp, answers that the actions of Arna’s freedom theatre were so marginal against the much larger pressure of society, that while personal transformation might have taken place it has not been able to transform society, neither the conflict.

Arna’s Children, the documentary