Faculty, staff and students gathered in the Atrium of the Mandel Center last Tuesday to hear about the inspiring work of the late Juliano Mer-Khamis and the Jenin Freedom Theatre. The Theatre is represented by Mustafa Staiti, Momeen Switat, Eyad Horani—three young Palestinian multimedia artists and actors—and Sophia Harb, the theatre’s company manager and assistant director. They are on tour around the United States to promote their newest production Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, to share the foundation’s mission, and to spread knowledge about artistic and cultural growth amidst war and violence in the West Bank. The Freedom Theatre – a theatre and cultural center in Jenin Refugee Camp – is developing the only professional venue for theatre and multimedia in the north of the West Bank. Since it opened its doors in 2006, the organization continues to grow, develop new and important skills, which will allow their people to build a better future for themselves and for their society.
The Freedom Theatre was founded by the celebrated Israeli/Palestinian filmmaker Juliano Mer-Khamis, originally from Nazareth, Israel, in 2006. He acted as director of the organization until April of 2011, when he was murdered in an act of violence by unknown enemies in the Jenin Refugee Camp. Now it is up to the theatre’s students and young professionals who remain with the company to ensure the foundation’s survival and communicate Juliano Mer-Khamis’ legacy and vision of social change.
As a part of their presentation, the group showed a few short video clips of the Freedom Theatre’s past productions, which showcased the immense talent of both the actors and the multimedia artists. One video was of their most recent production, Alice in Wonderland, and an original student production titled Fragments of Palestine, both of which portray the people of the camp’s struggles, fear, pain and hope for peace.
Some audience members were struck by the brutal images of violence highlighted in these videos and felt the group was trying to promote hatred rather than peace and non-violence. As the four artists vehemently denied this objective and attempted to explain their reasoning for this portrayal of violence, a heated debate began regarding expressing violence through art, the power of artistic messages and the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the Freedom Theatre members did react with slight aggravation, they explained why a number of their productions do depict such violence. As Momeen Switat, one of the actors, who grew up in the Jenin Refugee Camp, pointed out, “why would we act as if everything was completely normal and fine? We grow up in a war zone, as children we cannot go out and play in the streets whenever we would like. We face violence every day, live with fear of bomb-threats and invasions and for month’s at a time they closed the schools and we didn’t even have access to any sort of education. When we are on stage and creating art, we want to express ourselves and use the stage as an outlet to turn our anger and fear into energy we can use for art. It is our real life experience and we want to share it with others.” Ultimately, the group stated how they had never before experienced empowerment as individuals and validation as human beings with rights for freedom and peace until they joined the Freedom Theatre and had the opportunity to learn how to express themselves through the arts.
As the discussion died down, the group did make it clear that violence is not the only matter they portray and experience in all their productions, albeit it is an important factor. They have created plays and pieces, which feature hope, love and human growth despite all the negativity they have had to face. They did agree with the audience that it might be beneficial for the Jenin Freedom Theatre to set up their presentations showing both sides of their work to clearly state their mission towards freedom and make it more approachable for people, who do not come from their background and may not understand what they have had to experience in Jenin. The presentation and discussion was indeed a learning experience for both the audience and the group of artists and a great example for how non-violent communication can lead to a better understanding of both sides.
The Freedom Theatre is currently on tour around the United States giving presentations at colleges and universities and will hold the international premier of their production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University in New York City in October. Two of the three artists have received offers by American companies to work on projects here and will remain in the US after their tour to collaborate with the companies for a while.