Must-see docu penetrates a Jenin refugee camp to follow several Palestinian children from laughing little kids in a theater group to grim actors on a grislier world stage. In documenting the work of his indomitable activist mother Arna, Israeli co-helmer Juliano Mer Khamis filmed the youngsters often between 1989 and 1996. He returned just after the 2002 Israeli invasion of Jenin, to see what happened to “Arna’s Children.” Sure to spark controversy for its straightforward presentation of the Palestinian struggle, pic limns a devastating group portrait of the legacy of occupation.
Any one element of pic would make a compelling featurette in its own right, including the dynamic Arna Mer Khamis herself and her unique 180-degree about-face from intrepid 19-year-old Israeli freedom fighter to feisty 64-year-old Palestinian freedom fighter. She’s first shown bald, having left her hospital bed where she was battling terminal cancer, to exhort drivers and harangue the military while leading a roadside protest against a border closing. Awarded a major peace prize, Arna used the money to open alternative learning centers in Jenin after the schools were closed down during the Israeli occupation. The centers included a theater run by her now famous Israeli actor/director son Juliano.
Juliano’s voice-over occasionally provides running commentary. Early on, the future violent deaths of some of the kids shown clowning around in rehearsals are matter-of-factly revealed. The fates of others are unveiled more gradually, while those of still others are not disclosed until the final curtain.
Certain sights return like leitmotifs (a young boy sitting in the rubble that was once his home, pint-sized princes and princesses trying to capture the sun in an oft-reprised play); some of these images prove more consequential than others, but all function as moving snapshots of childhood moments when everything still seemed possible.
Yet even during these comparatively sheltered times, an alternate scenario forebodingly begins to be imposed from the outside. An Israeli television crew, come to do a feature piece on the Palestinian children’s theater, supplies the kids with a prescribed context and with pre-scripted lines, asking them loaded political questions and mockingly casting one of them as a would-be Palestinian Romeo.
Filmmakers scrupulously avoid cheap shot juxtapositions, allowing the audience to largely make its own associations: Two of the few remaining survivors of the theater group paste up posters of the latest ex-troupers, turning the theater wall into a bizarre memorial patchwork of posthumous cast photos. They describe a formerly happy-go-lucky cohort who turned sober suicide attacker after a little girl bled to death in his arms, retroactively explaining the little girl visible in the background of his farewell videotape shown earlier in the docu.
Tech credits are rough-hewn but at one with the handheld immediacy of the action, which at one point includes filmmakers joining a cadre of fighters on a nighttime sortie against Israeli tanks.