Freedom Theatre: Cultural resistance
The Freedom Theatre’s ‘Creation under Occupation’ seminar at the Dubai Lynx was a huge success. Tina Junday caught up with them
Between bullet-riddled buildings and the remnants of family homes lies a weapon of dramatic expression in the heart of the West Bank’s Jenin Refugee camp.
Built on foundations of hope and strength, The Freedom Theatre is raising the curtain on creative talent with what it calls ‘cultural resistance’ against the Israeli occupation. Those delegates lucky enough to attend the much praised ‘Creation under Occupation’ seminar at the Dubai Lynx International Festival of Creativity will have seen and heard how what started as a community project for the young generation of Jenin, has developed into a professional arts hub for acting, filmmaking, photography and music in the West Bank.
While deterioration on several fronts is palpable, the unquenchable defiance of students to express and share personal stories about love, death, their hopes and dreams, is being met with a small but renewed sense of purpose and camaraderie.
The theatre has sparked a troop of creative students to explore the art of storytelling through adaptations of
Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland, which satirised the authorities and challenged realities of contemporary Palestinian society.
It has also produced talent from graduates such as Eyad Hourani, who starred in Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscarnominated film, Omar.
“The theatre is trying to create a cultural revolution and change the atmosphere of Jenin, which has gone from a city where people, even those from the West Bank, were afraid to go, because they were worried about getting killed, into the place where people from everywhere come to visit,” said Jon Stanczak, one of the theatre’s founders and managing director.
“What we want to do is set an example of an alternative. An example can inspire others and that’s a multiplying effect – you need a spark, you need someone to speak out, someone to stand up and you get a snowball effect. That is what the theatre can do.”
The Freedom Theatre was founded by Juliano Mer Khamis in 2006 and inspired by his mother Arna’s theatre, in the West Bank, where she devoted much of her life helping children deal with chronic fear, depression and post-traumatic stress.
Juliano and Arna were passionate about giving hope to children living under Israeli occupation, most of whom suffered from psychosomatic symptoms, such as unwillingness to sleep alone, insomnia, bed-wetting and a constant struggle to concentrate, to name a few.
The use of psychodrama in roleplay, stage acting and spontaneous dramatisation, is still used today at the Freedom Theatre, where real-life situations are re-created and acted out in the present using alternative endings.
“Theatre is a place where you can dream and here we don’t dream anymore. Even the small kids, the maximum dream is about death. We lost the dream. The dream of a free society of culture,” Mer Khamis said in one of his last interviews. He was killed by a masked gunman in front of his son Jay and babysitter in April 2011. His killer has never been found and those closest to him are doubtful they will ever know the truth about what happened.
Stanczak said: “It’s been three years and we still don’t have a clue about who killed him. I don’t think we will ever know. Even if there was some big investigation with an answer I wouldn’t believe it. We just have to accept that this, among many other things in our society, will remain unexplained and we just have to continue our work.”
The story of Mer Khamis has spurred staff and students to continue his legacy, for a cultural intifada “carrying on its shoulders universal values of freedom and justice.”
Mustafa Staiti, a Palestinian filmmaker who was taught by Mer Khamis, said: “People have gone from being nothing, to being something. One graduate had never been to school before – he was selling vegetables, and was never accepted by the community or his family. He followed acting, improved his skills and now he is studying in London. There were children who were not able to talk properly. After three years, they are
performing on a stage in Germany. Every story in Freedom Theatre is a success story.”
But the fear of daily conflict is still an ongoing struggle in Jenin, where freedom of expression is not always a fundamental right. Following Mer Khamis’s death, soldiers pelted stones and forced their way into the theatre. Adnan Naghnaghiye, the head technician and Bilal Saadi, its chairperson, were taken away, and one year later Nabil Al-Raee was abducted from his family home in the early hours of the morning, which formed part of the murder investigation.
Stanczak, who was present on both occasions, said: “There was about a year of constant Israeli harassment against the theatre and we were always very clear in saying we’re happy to provide any information we have about anyone that could progress the investigation into the death of Juliano. Instead of calling to arrange a meeting they bashed your door at 2am at night. I was present when both Adnan and Nabil was taken. It is an everyday experience in Palestian life. We’ve had several of our actors and actor students taken by the Israelis at one checkpoint or another.
“Since Juliano’s death we’ve had almost half of the staff and students of the Freedom Theatre interrogated. More than a dozen people.”
He added: “In many ways my fear is am I able, in the position that I have, to deal with the mountains of challenges that we are standing against and, of course, living in this area with my children and my wife? The factors of uncertainty, not only around Juliano’s death but constantly inside society where death threats are made at the blink of an eye. In Jenin, people threaten to kill each other every second day and you never know if it’s serious or not. It’s an extremely destructive society internally.”
With the continuing battle for artistic and creative freedom, how does the theatre continue to function on a daily basis? Staiti says: “It’s always been like this in the area. It’s never been settled. But what makes the Freedom Theatre a unique organisation is that it learns how to deal with such an environment. It can handle all kinds of circumstances.”
Stanczak adds: “The main threat of the theatre is not from outside, it’s from the inside. The outside threats will not destroy us. In the end we are the ones who will destroy ourselves. It is a matter of how resilient we are, what our coping mechanisms are.
“The Freedom Theatre has to be a strong character and no matter what happens, it must continue to stand up. It can be tortured, it can be beaten, it can be humiliated. It doesn’t matter. As long as we stand up as a collective, then we move on. As long as we can protect our own integrity, then we will be able to move on. When we lose that – and start acting like the oppressor – that is the beginning of our end.”
The students have immersed themselves in the art of storytelling to vent emotions and heal their mental scars from the intifadas. While it hasn’t healed their deepest wounds, it has provided them with creative tools at the theatre, as coping mechanisms for the future.
In an attempt to give students a voice and build solidarity within the community, the theatre set up The Freedom Bus, which visits communities across the West Bank. Palestinian actors and musicians stage performances in villages, in front of soldiers to spread their message of hope.
The bus, also known as the ride for justice, has been endorsed by authors, theatre directors and artists from across the world, such as Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Judith Butler.
Students have also produced their own youth magazine and photography books with plans to publish a collection of short stories, written by the youth of Jenin.
Stanczak says: “We have a multimedia department that uses filmmaking, photography and creative writing as a means of storytelling and expression and the outcomes of those projects present us with a very vivid opportunity to bring a message to a larger audience. Films can be uploaded to the internet and exhibitions shared around the world.”
He adds: “The Freedom Theatre has a budget that would be considered ridiculous by anyone. What we have achieved is gigantic but the potential that is there is multifold.”
But what does the future hold for the Freedom Theatre and can it ever help resolve the ongoing conflict and end the occupation?
“The Freedom Theatre cannot resolve the issue on its own,” replies Stanczak. “For a resolution, we need equal rights and to recognise and respect each other’s rights.
“The only way that could happen is if there is motivation on the oppressive parts and the only way for Palestine to be motivated to end the occupation is if it costs more than it pays. The main reason why it doesn’t cost Israel anything is because the international community is not only demanding a price, they are sponsoring the occupation.
“What is required is international pressure on Israel, and until Israel recognises the rise of the Palestinian people and their rights from their own leadership, you will have one oppressor replaced by another oppressor. You will have Animal Farm, which the theatre performed in 2008.”
Staiti adds: “Sometimes we ask ourselves if we don’t continue Juliano’s message, he will have died for nothing. If we have love for this man and love for his message everything we do should continue that message – even if that might endanger our lives.”
Performance... the Freedom Theatre, situated in Jenin Refugee Camp, views artistic express
ion as an integrated part of the struggle for justice, equality and freedom in Palestine