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

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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

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