Juliano Mer-Khamis became a known figure to many people through his acting career in the 80s, but his most prominent role came during the 21st century, with the founding of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, West Bank . The theater became a beacon of hope for people living in the war-ridden area; a source of joy in an otherwise quite tragic situation. It remained so until Juliano’s abrupt and far too early end in April of 2011, when a masked man shot him to death outside the theater in Jenin. This begs questions concerning the root cause leading up to such an assassination, and whether Juliano’s hope for a brighter future died with him.
Already at birth, Julianos life showed signs of the controversy yet to come. Being the son of Saliba Khamis, a Christian Palestinian, and Arna Mer, a Jewish Israeli, Juliano has been famously quoted many times for stating that he was “100 percent Palestinian, and 100 percent Jewish.” He eventually came to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a part of the Paratrooper Brigade, which would prove somewhat useful in the future, since it gave him a more positive outlook in the Israeli media.
Julianos first large step into the world of arts and culture was a role in the movie Little Drummer Girl in 1984, a thriller based on the book by the same name. Juliano played alongside Diane Keaton, in a movie about Israeli spies attempting to capture a radical Palestinian terrorist. Already in his first film were there elements of the conflict that would later become the main topic on Juliano’s agenda.
His acting career continued throughout the 80s and the 90s, when he had roles in a number of movies, some of which were critically acclaimed. At the beginning of the 21st century, Juliano became more politically involved as he released his debut documentary, Arna’s Children. It portrayed a group of children that his mother had worked with. Back in 1989, Julianos mother, Arna, had set up a theatre group in Jenin, where she taught young children to turn their desperate situation around and express their feelings on stage.
Juliano filmed these children, as they played and rehearsed between 1989 and 1996. In Arnas Children, Juliano goes back to Jenin years later, after his mother has died and the theater group has been disbanded, to see what has happened to the children. Some of them have joined resistance groups and terrorist organizations and have either been killed by Israeli troops or died in suicide attacks, sometimes killing several civilians in the act. A few have been imprisoned. The documentary was widely appreciated and it even received the award for “Best Documentary” at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Following the success of his movie, Juliano reestablished the theatre group in Jenin, thus founding the Freedom Theatre. Now a famous and public figure, Juliano became more outspoken than ever, not only criticizing the Israeli treatment of the Palestinian settlements, but also advocating women’s rights within the Palestinian society, which is otherwise rather patriarchal. Such controversial opinions made him many enemies on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which his assassination became the tragic proof.
Almost eight months has passed since that day and now the future of the Freedom Theatre is in question. Without its figurehead, the theatre is no doubt facing hard times ahead. At the same time, one might argue that Julianos death might have bestowed him with the status of a martyr. This would provide the Freedom Theatre with a rare opportunity to plead their case and show the world that there are many struggling to provide an alternative solution to the conflict. If so, it would allow for Julianos work to continue even after his death. Abdul Hibombo, a Swedish journalist working for SVT and who has previously made a story about Mer-Khamis, is skeptical about the positive effects that Juliano’s martyrdom might have:
-In a conflict like this one, with so many “martyrs”, even the best people risk to be forgotten. Everybody is too busy just surviving another day and unfortunately the rest of the world have failed to assist over and over again.
Hibombos skepticism aside, the Freedom Theatre has not ceased its activities. In June, two months after Julianos murder, the stage in Jenin once again came to life as the cast performed Sho Kman (What Else, in English) and since then their work has continued. Numerous actions of harassment and discrimination from the Israeli army as well as masked vandals aside, the cast and crew of the Freedom Theatre sets up plays and performances and goes on tour all over the world. They performed Sho Kman in France, and even set up their own version of the famous play Waiting for Godot. They eventually performed with their latest play at the Miller Theatre, New York. TheFreedom Theatre no doubt faces difficult times ahead, and it remains to be seen if it can survive in the future without its charismatic and outspoken figurehead. Nevertheless it seems clear that Juliano Mer-Khamis left behind a legacy that still provides a peaceful refuge in the middle of a terrible conflict.