As part of our recognition of the life, work and tragic death of Juliano Mer-Khamis (1958-2011), we are publishing an excerpt from Ella Shohat’s recent postscript chapter to the new edition of Israeli Cinema: East /West and the Politics of Representation (IB Tauris, London), which features a discussion of Juliano’s powerful documentary, Arna’s Children. The excerpt is taken from the section, “Independence, Nakba and the Visual Archive,” published with the author’s permission in memory of Juliano Mer-Khamis.
. . . [At the time of the completion of] Israeli Cinema, the bulk of Israeli films, and documentary cinema in particular, relayed the official Israeli view of history. Today, in contrast, one finds a documentary cinema that has both researched the existing archive and created a new aural/visual archive, actively intervening in the debate over the representation of history. At the same time, cinema/media studies have gradually gained a more legitimate place within academia. Yet a subliminal prejudice against the visual, per se, perhaps explains the refusal to see such film work as fundamentally historiographical and the reluctance to view photographic and cinematic documents as a vital part of the archive and the reassessment of history. Revisionist documentaries address historical quandaries, foregrounding issues and insights unavailable through conventional written historiography. In the case of Israel, this critical cinema has gradually come to haunt the Zionist metanarrative, and, in the process, has redefined the parameters of legitimate history as well as the format of legitimate historiography.
Contemporary Israeli cinema exists against a backdrop in which revisionist Israeli historians, in the wake of Palestinian scholars, have helped debunk the founding myths surrounding the creation of the state of Israel. Posing irreverent questions, revisionist documentary cinema too has been preoccupied with memory and history, as each film sheds new light on these foundational narratives. In the vein of revisionist historiography, the emergent revisionist cinema has highlighted the misrepresentation, distortion, and manipulation of “historical truth.” Demonstrating the repercussions of historical representation for national identity, often the cinematic space becomes a meeting point between antithetical historical perspectives. By foregrounding issues, stories, and insights usually rendered invisible, the oral interviews and audio-visual archival material come to constitute an interdisciplinary cinematic project, at once oral history and critical ethnography. Such documentaries could also be seen as on a continuum with books such as Sarah Graham-Brown’sPalestinians and Their Society 1880-1946: A Photographic Essay, Walid Khalidi’s Before their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, and All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, Elias Sanbar’s Les Palestiniens: La Photographie D’une Terre Et De SonPeuple De 1839 a Nos Jours, and Issam Nassar’s Photographing Jerusalem: The Image of the City in Nineteenth Century Photography. Taken together, this raiding of the colonial archive unearths a hidden past and shapes a visual cultural archive. Revisionist documentaries have accessed a wide intertext of both still and moving images, capturing pieces of Palestine in a recuperative project that demonstrates the existence of an inhabited land now disappeared but surviving as celluloid Palestine.
[Some documentaries draw] on visual evidence—period photographs, archival film clips, textual documents, illustrative map graphics, interviews, and on-location shooting... The imaging of Palestine takes place through the history of the medium itself, through the referencing of the photographic travelogues of “the Orient” and the “Holy Land” by nineteenth-century photographers such as Maxime Du Camp and Felix Bonfils, as well as of the early cinematography of the Lumière Brothers, especially of Jaffa and Jerusalem. [Some also include} the work of indigenous photographers, such as Khalil Raad, one of the first Jerusalem Palestinians to open a studio, working from 1890 till 1948. Whether taken by travelers or indigenous camerapersons, the images of Palestine… function on one level as backdrop illustration subordinated to the voiceover; but on another level, they form the core argument, as the visual documentation of agricultural landscapes and urban spaces, as well as public events and private scenes—all offer evidence of a vital Palestine that contradicts the idea of an “empty land.". . .
This project of unearthing a largely submerged history has gained momentum over the years. Zionist texts, diaries, memoirs, state documents, and museological projects are revisited…Revisionist cinema forms a significant component of a changing Jewish-Israeli ideological landscape. (The] Documentaries… attempt to write an alternative history in a way that links past and present. Activist organizations, meanwhile, have made a parallel attempt to shape public debate by zooming in on contemporary aggressions. The Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselem has deployed media documentation as court evidence to facilitate investigations against violators. B’Tselem has placed cameras in the hands of Palestinians who have recorded settlers’ abuses, images that have become a significant source of information for local and international media, its footage broadcast in major media networks. To take another example, the activist group Zochrot, whose Hebrew name indicates “remembering,” (in the feminine plural) has disrupted the official Israeli collective memory by inscribing the narrative of Palestinian existence onto the landscape. Zochrot has worked to remind Israelis of the Nakba by including trips to destroyed Palestinian villages, and hanging signs in Arabic and Hebrew over them, identifying these sites according to their pre-1948 Arabic names. Artists Without Walls, an ad hoc group of Israeli and Palestinian artists/activists, meanwhile, was formed in 2004 at the height of the construction of the Wall, deploying diverse forms of cultural activism to dismantle it and produce an alternative Israel/Palestine space. Such performative gestures unearth the subterranean history of these sites, removing them from the comfort zone of Israeli oblivion. . .
Juliano Mer-Khamis’ documentary Arna’s Children (2003), meanwhile, creates its own archive. Made over a period of ten years, Mer-Khamis chronicles the activism of his mother, Arna, a former Israeli Palmach fighter who married a Palestinian and who ultimately rejected the Zionist legacy. Arna was the founder of a theatre project for children in Jenin on the West Bank, for which she was awarded the alternative Nobel peace prize. As the documentary’s protagonist, Arna mediates between the spectatorial worlds of Israelis and Palestinians. Although Arna’s looks, body language, speaking intonation, and generally confident authority places her squarely within Euro-Israeli Palmach generation, she has also “crossed the lines,” now identifying with the very people she had fought against in 1948. While her Palmach generation borrowed music, food, and even Kaffiyas, in an instance of cultural appropriation combined with military camouflage, Arna, to borrow from the American frontier discourse, can be said to have “gone native.” She wraps a Kaffiya around her head to protest the military closure of Jenin at a checkpoint. The Kaffiya further shifts signification from an emblem of solidarity with Palestinian struggle to an emblem of a struggle of a diseased body, when the viewer learns that it covers a head rendered bald by chemotherapy. Arna’s son, the filmmaker Juliano Mer-Khamis, a well known actor, traces the evolution of his mother’s theatre project, but in the process also prods the spectator to reflect on his own in-between-ness. The filmmaker’s own story as a son of a mixed-couple, fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew, figures in the film to illustrate the broader politics of border crossing.
In the film, years after his mother’s death and now post-Jenin, Juliano Mer-Khamis revisits the destroyed theater. The filmmaker sees again the children first filmed in the late 1980s, now grown-ups at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Mer-Khamis’s voiceover narration guides the viewers, introducing the characters and anchoring the back-and-forth between the present tense and the past tense. Arna’s Children incorporates older footage of the children readying themselves for the show in the same space where the filmmaker now stands. Such a return to the space of past hopefulness coaxes the spectator into contradictory identifications, both with the children’s suffering as well as with the suffering they inflicted later with their attacks in Israel. In a kind of a double-voiced narrative, the film shows a suicide bombing in Israel and a massive Israeli tank patrolling the narrow streets. While recognizing the suffering on the Israeli side, the film’s politics of focalization demonstrate a commitment to an overall anti-occupation stance, a cinematic strategy reminiscent of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). Arna’s Children paints a disheartening picture of the occupation, where violence, death, and hopelessness, along with determination and struggle, relentlessly haunt the waking lives of Palestinians, many of whom mourn the friends and relatives who have not survived. Far from being a sensationalist psychologist drama about the making of a terrorist, the film prods the spectator to identify with children whose dreams of normality in the midst of violence have taken them into the pre-scripted end of a tragedy. Refugee camp children are not simply performing theatrical pieces but are also sharing their everyday life dramas under occupation. During rehearsals, they end up re-visiting shocking incidents of the previous day. The spectator witnesses their visible paralysis in the face of yet another bulldozing of their houses, as they absurdly find literal shelter in the theater. In this version of a Boalian “theatre of the oppressed,” the stage is transformed into a cathartic space; to potentially act they must theatrically re-enact.Arna’s Children recounts a voyage to the interior of an injured Palestinian collective through the eyes of its children. Childhood becomes the site of both infuriating impasse and resilient hope.
In contrast to documentaries such as Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg’s Promises (2003), Arna’s Childrendoes not perform a “balanced” delineation of both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Palestinian children are not represented as occupying a parallel space within a tragedy of equal proportions; the Palestinian children act as both metonymy and metaphor for a story of ongoing occupation and besieged existence, where expanding fences, walls, and borders bite into land, house, and home. At the center of the images of encirclement are Palestinian children, in contrast to the earlier [Israeli 1980s “Palestinian Wave”] cinema, where focalization was mediated either through besieged Israeli liberal/leftists or reluctant soldiers—a practice that persists till today in films such as Ari Folman’s “animated documentary” Waltz with Bashir (2008).Arna’s Children interweaves past scenes of children joyfully participating in theatrical rehearsals with scenes of the same boys seven years later, shown as leaders of the Al-Aqsa brigades or in posters hailing them as martyrs. In one conversation, the adolescents recount their first encounter with Arna and Juliano, revealing their initial suspicions that Arna and her son might be Israeli agents. Only by working together, the Palestinians admit, did they learn to develop trust and love—to the point of regarding Arna and Juliano as virtual family members. In a later sequence, the spectator learns that two of the boys, best friends, killed four Israeli women in Hadera before they were shot to death. What was a hopeful story of creativity amidst violence at the beginning of the film, reaches a depressing note of renewed violence at the conclusion of the film, suggesting a classic violence-begets-violence structure.
Critical documentaries, then, explore the imaging and imagining of the contested geography of “Palestine” and “Israel” in the wake of Western imperial expansion into what came to be called “the Middle East” as well as in the light of conflicting national desires. Some films begin with the moment when the desire to visualize the Holy Land encounters the scientific invention of mimetic technologies, pointing to the historical role of visual culture in the competing claims for Palestine and Israel. Rather than take for granted such notions as “seeing is believing” and “images do not lie,” such reflexive films critically re-assemble and re-sequence the standard forms of montage. The figuring of landscape, architecture, maps, archeological sites, and agricultural and urban spaces has itself come to constitute a kind of a visual archive that both documents the past and serves as “evidence” for specific historical narratives. In the context of partition and displacement, audio-visual mediation has occupied center-stage in the battle over representation, defining national identity and communal belonging. Throughout, revisionist cinema reflects on this question of “mediation” within what might be called a social semiotics of geography.