Arna's Children Review

in 11st Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival

by Peter Keough

While news of the latest celebrity trial saturates the North American broadcast media, the Middle East dominated this year’s Toronto Hot Docs Festival. With stark and disturbing films such as Death in Gaza, Control Room, War Feels Like War, Checkpoint and many others competing for audience’s empathy, the modestly produced Arna’s Children might have passed as just another earnest look at the misery of Palestinian children in refugee camps in the occupied territories. Instead, with its understated irony and detached pathos, with its seamless interweaving of past and present and of hope and reality, Children astounds and devastates even those numbed by the subject’s litany of suffering. It was our choice for the FIPRESCI Prize for best first feature film.

Arna is Arna Mer, a veteran of the 1948 Israeli War for Independence who in later years dedicated herself to seeking justice for the displaced Palestinian people. Among her children is the film’s director, Juliano Mer Khamis, a distinguished Israeli actor who has appeared in films by Amos Gitai and others. He introduces his mother in a scene at an Israeli road block where she and other demonstrators importune drivers to sound their horns in protest. Though dying of terminal cancer, Arna clearly is still a firebrand with undimmed ideals.

But Arna has other children as well, surrogate sons and daughters in the Jenin refugee camp where she maintained a school for the local kids, teaching them art and especially drama. The filmmaker worked as a drama coach there as well, as is shown in footage dating back to the years 1989-1996. Among his charges are Yussef, Ashraf and A’lla, who exult in the opportunity to express their rage, fear and desires on stage while in real life bulldozers raze their homes and daily humiliation and injustice crush their spirit. They speak highly of their experience with Arna and Juliano, regarding them, despite the fact that they are Jews, as their family.

So, one expects, Arna and her school will inspire these deprived children to channel their hardship and anger into redemptive careers in the arts. Subtly, Mer Khamis cuts from this older footage to 2002, to the height of the Intifada and the onslaught suicide bombings to reveal the humbling truth: they have all become armed militants. In stunning sequences Mer Khamis accompanies his former students as they dodge Israeli patrols. They point out the gun slots they carved in the walls of their former theater and blithely talk about those they killed and those who died. Funerals and grief inevitably follow, including the funeral of Mer Khamis’ mother, who succumbed to her illness, perhaps still firm in her faith that compassion, art and tolerance can make a difference.

Perhaps it does: though Mer Khamis never states his judgments overtly, one can’t help wondering if in fact their training in art, drama and self-expression might have contributed to the children’s later career of doomed violence. Drawing on their rage and building their confidence in make believe dramas, maybe they found the determination to act for real. Mer Khamis remains silent on this, but the fact that Arna’s Children makes human those otherwise demonized or deified into stereotypes reaffirms film’s power to tell the truth.