Udi Aloni’s most recent film, Art/Violence, was a collaboration with Batoul Taleb and Mariam Abu Khaled, two actors from the Jenin Freedom Theatre. The film recently received the CINEMA fairbindet prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The prize includes distribution in 28 select cinemas.
Three years ago I joined the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp in order to work with Juliano Mer-Khamis. At the time, I had no idea that this decision would change my life forever. After an incredible year filled with the extraordinary dreams and contagious enthusiasm of Juliano, he was murdered in broad daylight in front of the very theatre he founded, five bullets in his body. For a moment, it appeared that the murder had succeeded in stopping one of the most promising artistic movements to emerge from our common place between the Jordan River and the sea. We were in utter shock, as if they had murdered the swallow that signalled the coming of the Arab Spring, and we felt stuck in an eternal winter.
Almost two years have passed since the murder. Two of Juliano’s brilliant and brave students, Mariam Abu Khaled and Batoul Taleb, stand together with Juliano’s talented 12-year-old daughter, Milay. We receive a prestigious award at the Berlin International Film Festival for the film we made together, Art/Violence. The film is dedicated to Jul, and his spirit guides it from start to finish. Art/Violence is not about the life and work of Jul, nor is it a realist documentary about these three young women whose lives he forever changed (that film remains to be made, when the time is ripe). Instead, our film is the story, told through art and literature, of how the wild, artistic and political spirit of Jul –our teacher, father and friend– matured and developed in the souls of these three women, who continue and shape his path as young artists.
Art/Violence was not made overnight; it started and stopped through several different phases, punctuated by Jul’s death. The film is structured as a triptych that begins in Jenin with the play Alice in Wonderland, directed by Juliano and starring Mariam and Batoul. It continues with While Waiting, an adaptation of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot that I directed in Ramallah with Juliano’s students after he died. And it ends with an attempt to reconstruct part of Antigone in Jenin, a unfinished film that we were making just as Jul was murdered.
Jul dreamed of documenting Mariam and Batoul in their transition from characters in the theatre to characters in real life –and on the movie screen. Art/Violence is an attempt to fulfill that dream. The first scene, for example, shows Mariam dressed in full costume as the Red Queen. She’s on her way to Lyed, where she visits fifty Palestinian children whose houses were demolished . In an effort to restore their sense of cultural belonging –which is robbed from them daily, because they live as Israeli citizens– the Red Queen takes them to watch Alice in the Jenin Freedom Theatre.
The film turns on the drastic transition from the great hope before the murder to the depression afterward. The second part of the film shows the production of Waiting for Godot, with Mariam and Batoul playing the lead roles of Didi and Gogo –roles that Beckett, in his time, did not allow women to perform.
During the play, Gogo asks Didi: “Did they take our rights?”
Didi, with a bitter, ironic laugh, answers him: “No, we gave them up.”
As we were creating this moment on screen, we realized that there is a double struggle: a struggle against those who take our rights, and an internal struggle to act on our responsibility not to give them up. Therefore, slowly, we wanted to eternalize our work through the camera, as an artistic act, as an act of mourning for a true friend and teacher who disappeared from our lives without warning, and as a way to preserve his memory and continue his life’s work.
The period following the murder was the most difficult time in our lives. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, we would wake up every morning to the same reality, without hope, without change, without a way out. However, like in Godot, we saw that in the midst of this endless, continuous depression, new hope and friendship began to appear. Just as Didi tucks Gogo into “bed” at night, sings him a lullaby and protects him from his fears, support and friendship came our way: Adi Khalefa, a brilliant, young stand-up comedian from Nazareth, the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM from Lod, the actors Ammar Khalhal from Acco and Saleh Bakri from Haifa, and the singer Shaida Mansour from London – all of these amazing new friends came to support us and help us finish the third part of the film, Antigone. In our version of the story, Ammar asks Saleh if he thinks the hero will kill his sister, who is trying to produce the theatre play Antigone in the camp. And Saleh answers: “No!” He will close the theatre, which, to his sister, is the equivalent of death.
Rami Khawail –a 20-year-old actor in the Jenin refugee camp who was arrested and interrogated by the IDF and the General Security Services during the rehearsals, performs Shylock’s famous monologue from the Shakespearean play The Merchant of Venice:
Many people tried to prevent us from performing the play and creating our film. We received threats; actors were put in jail; Israeli and reactionary Palestinian forces applied pressures. Dealing with arrests, threats, and other attempts to stop our creative lives became our daily routines. After this turmoil, the Berlin Film Festival’s acceptance of Art/Violence was especially encouraging, and the love, praiseworthy reviews and award were sweet gifts for our Quixotic stubbornness. The film did not receive any institutional support, Israeli or otherwise. As an independent project, the film was free to portray our love for Juliano, the art of theatre, femininity, and Palestine. Our team was joined by Aviva Zimmerman and Tamer Nafar as a producer, Eilona Givon as animator, and Adi Golan-Bikhanfo as editor and co-director. Thus, in an organic manner, a film emerged that was, simultaneously, both Palestinian and binational. I remember that when I first arrived in Jenin, I told Jul that I had come there in hopes that he would teach me the steps of binationalism, step by measured step. And indeed, through both Jul and his students, I learned that binationalism is at once a beautiful dance and a never-ending struggle.
One of the most exciting aspects of the CINEMA fairbindet award is its promise for distribution in 28 cinemas. And what makes filmmakers happier than knowing there will be an audience for their work? I wholeheartedly hope that the film will be shown widely in Israel as well. In the meantime, we’ve decided to organize modest screenings in supportive communities. We were proud to hold the first screening at Al Saraya Theatre in Yaffa on the evening of March 8, with all proceeds going to Mariam and Batoul’s amazing new project: the play Peter Pan in Jenin.
As far as Mariam Batoul and Milay are concerned, the film is not the end, but just the beginning…it is the first step in their transformation into proud and remarkable Palestinian actresses and directors — for whom it is impossible to separate between art and life.
This post originally appeared on the Haaretz website.