The 52-year-old Mer Khamis was born in Nazareth, of a Jewish mother and an Arab Christian father, and became a celebrated actor, most recently playing a small role in Julian Schnabel's film "Miral." He appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, going back to the 1984 adaptation of the John Le Carre novel "The Little Drummer Girl." Mer Khamis was also well known for directing the documentary "Arna's Children," which shared the Best Documentary honor at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival. The film charted his own mother's crusading work to provide children's theater in Jenin in the 1980s.
"Arna's Children was one of those films that opened our eyes in the early years of Tribeca that we — through film — have the power to bring people together," wrote festival director Nancy Schafer in a post about Mer Khamis's death on the festival's Web site. "I remember seeing jurors talking to patrons standing in line, telling them about how powerful the film was, and it just became obvious that Tribeca had an obligation to show films that bridge cultures and provide opportunities for understanding."
But it was Mer Khamis's work with the Jenin Freedom Theatre, founded in 2006, for which he will probably be best remembered. The theater's official mission statement explains its program this way: "Palestine today is a shattered society and the population struggles with increasing isolation, fragmentation and disillusion.... Countering these trends, The Freedom Theatre believes that theatre and the arts have a crucial role to play in building up a free and healthy society." In a clip promoting the theater, Mer Khamis explained his vision: "The Freedom Theatre is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation."
The work of the Jenin Freedom Theatre stirred controversy, both from religious conservatives within the West Bank, who disapproved of the liberal values preached by the theater (it was, for example, co-ed), and from Israeli commentators who disapproved of Mer Khamis's outspoken and relentless criticism of the occupation.
Most recently, Mer Khamis directed a version of "Alice in Wonderland" that combined aspects of circus and commedia dell'arte, scripted by Israel-born artist Udi Aloni, a well-known Jewish critic of the Israeli state. Writing in Ha'aretz, the liberal commentator Gideon Levy described Mer Khamis's "Alice" as "one of the loveliest, most stylish, political plays I had ever seen."
Summing things up, Nabeel Raee, director of the acting school at the Jenin Freedom Theatre, told Democracy Now that the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis was "a big loss for Palestine and Palestinian culture, artists and people who believe in art, and a big loss for the children of Jenin refugee camp."
To see Juliano Mer Khamis talk about the Jenin Freedom Theatre, see the video below: