Using performance art as a form of resistance is not new, and we need only a cursory look at theater and film to remind us how filmmakers and playwrights have used performance to call out unfair treatment of people by power and authority. Euripides’s The Trojan Women; Shakespeare’s Richard III; Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; and more recently, Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now; Steven Spielberg‘s Amistad; Ava DuVernay‘ Selma; and James Cameron’s Avatar all touch on powerful political and social issues that inspire audience response above and beyond mere entertainment. Even George Lucas’s Star Wars is often viewed as a post-colonialist critique warning against a dystopian fascist future.
Therefore it makes sense that Palestinians participating in The Freedom Theatre in the West Bank use theater and performance as a tactic of resistance, learning, and cultural expression.
Officially formed in 2006 in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, The Freedom Theatre’s origin can be traced back to the First Intifada in 1987 when Israeli political and civil rights activist, Arna Mer, launched Care and Learning, an organization offering education services for refugee children traumatized by violence and instability along with the absence of education amidst the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As part of this project, Mer made use of a second-story space above a residential home to use as a performance venue where children and families could be entertained as well as learn performing arts to serve as creative wartime therapy — this was the Stone Theatre, predecessor of The Freedom Theatre.
The Jenin refugee camp hosts 15,000 – 19,000 residents in roughly a half kilometer square. That’s approximately, 33,300 people per square kilometer according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It is guessed that half of the population is under the age of 18.
The Stone Theatre building was bulldozed by the Israeli army in 2002 during the Battle of Jenin, and with it, Care and Learning’s performance space. Arna Mer would die in 1995 from cancer, but not before winning a 1993 Right Livelihood Award for her humanitarian work among Palestinians.
In 2005, Arna Mer’s son, Juliano Mer Khamis, partnered with Swedish-Israeli peace activist, Jonatan Stanczak and other Israeli, Palestinian and international supporters to form The Freedom Theater — a direct extension and continuation of Juliano’s mother’s work. The theater offers a broad spectrum of programs for children and adults including:
- Film making/videography
- Creative writing
- Circus performing
- Stage management
- Costume and set design
The Freedom Theatre further offers resources to educators and therapists, and it is a safe place for girls, boys, men, and women to participate.
However, above and beyond the therapeutic benefits of performance as a counterbalance to displacement and confrontation, The Freedom Theatre promotes professionalism as well, because the more powerful and effective the creative presentation, the greater and further the reach of the theatrical communication to Palestinians, Israelis, and the rest of the world. In this way, storytelling, in all of its forms, becomes a path to wholeness and well being when people’s identity is assailed relentlessly by power and authority. By enabling Palestinians to stage resistance through creative venues, we are better able to understand the challenges they face and respond to their plight. For whatever mechanisms of empathy that storytelling through film, theater, and visual art evoke, we absorb better than political messaging, and this can be seen in the social-cause narratives circulating social media from AJ+, Vox, and Buzzfeed to name a few.
I had the opportunity to meet Mustafa Shata this past fall while he and other leaders from The Freedom Theatre visited the United States. The purpose of the visit was to gain support for the company to perform in the States and other countries around the globe. No small feat, considering the tight travel restrictions Palestinians face, especially when performing theatrical content that responds to political and social oppression. Still, the New York City support was enthusiastic, and hopefully The Freedom Theater will find welcoming venues and audiences here.
In 2011 Juliano Mer Khamis was assassinated by a masked gunman outside the theater he helped found, and the murder is unsolved to this day. Yet the theater and the mission of Juliano and his mother, Arna before him, lives on enabling Palestinians to give voice to the limitations inflicted upon them as well as the victories that occur when these limitations and challenges are resisted with creative narratives. Each success these videographers, playwrights, and actors achieve brings them steps closer to freedom and brings us steps closer to support the freedom they and we deserve. The stories and images of resistance emanating from The Freedom Theatre may originate in Jenin, but the messages of freedom and justice are certainly universal and global.
The Herald Scotland
The Freedom Theatre
Our Way to Fight: Israeli and Palestinian Activists for Peace, Michael Riordon, 2011, Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago
Jewish Currents: Activist Politics & Art
United Nations Relief and Works Agency
Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.