Radicalism of Grace as Redemption: A Review of  ART/VIOLENCE

In this spring season of Nissan, with the approach of Passover and Easter, how do we remain connected to the possibility of redemption? ART/VIOLENCE (75 minutes | Arabic, English & Hebrew| 2013) is the one film, wobbling on the precipice, that you will likely not see, but need to! The question it raises is whether art serving as resistance leads to violence or acts as its substitute for something more redemptive. The film is a collaborative experiment I viewed for its recent opening at NYU. It was no accident that this film garnered the Cinema Fairbindet Prize (Berlinale 2013), the Prize of Juliano – Cinema South Festival (Israel 2013), as well as the “Open Eyes Award” – MedFilm Festival (Rome 2013) – and why? Simply because of the courage manifest in co-directors Batoul Taleb, Mariam Abu-Khaled & Udi Aloni coming together to birth a compelling aesthetics of bi-nationalism that cannot be ignored. The first thing that struck me about this film, in relation to other films by Udi Aloni, was that ART/VIOLENCE boasts remarkably high production values and thus a heightened aesthetic.

Echoing Palestinian laureate poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who once remarked that: “Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down.”

In a double-bind of mourning, Udi Aloni presented this film amidst the recent loss of his mother, MK Shulamit Aloni, as well as memorializing the loss of another visionary activist, Juliano Mer-Khamis.

The film, ART/VIOLENCE, emerges in the wake of the murder on April 4th, 2011 outside the Freedom Theater in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank of its director and peace activist, Israeli-Palestinian, Juliano Mer-Khamis. In Mer-Khamis–only 52 when he was murdered– Aloni sees the embodiment of the beloved trickster.

Mer-Khamis was the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father— a boundary crossing rare in a land where the two populations almost never intermarry.

Juliano’s grandfather, Dr. Gideon Mer, was a doctor in the Galilee in the early twentieth century, and practiced his healing with the belief he could bring people together through medicine. Juliano’s mother, Arna Mer, was a brave woman, who married Saliba Khamis— she also believed in building a bridge between the two peoples through intimacy. Through their radicalism of grace, Juliano and Udi each aimed to continue that tradition.

At the recent New York screening, it was Aloni who overshadowed invited panelists, Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek, because of his ability to speak from the heart and share his process as artistic midwife to this remarkable co-production. Aloni is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Raised in an avowedly Israeli secular home, Udi is described by his co-directors as an activist whose artistic manifestation oscillates between the “radicalism of grace” [hesed] and the “radicalism of judgment” [din]. This mystical evaluation of the seemingly secular Israeli artist-activist is telling, allowing Udi to traverse all boundaries as a true ‘ivri, venturing beyond the scriptural verses that teach:

“In ancient times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the river [me-ever ha-nahar] and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the river and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring” (Joshua 24:2-3).

To be identified as an ivri, a Hebrew, means walking the path of Abraham/Ibrahim who sojourned to Canaan from Mesopotamia, on the other side of the Euphrates. This is no longer topography; for Udi it is an artistic topos denoting the Jew as the quintessential other–not in a politico-geographic sense of dwelling, but in an ethno-cultural sense of being that courageous minority willing to resist and at the same time redeem the hegemony of the majority.

Aloni takes his Hebrew identity a step further by crossing boundaries most Israelis would not dare cross — leaving the comfort of his Tel Aviv apartment to actually move into the Freedom Theater in Jenin to live and work with Juliano Mer-Khamis.

When Aloni’s Tel Aviv friends no longer speak to him, he embraces the hospitality of the Freedom Theater in his search for new shorelines.

As a ritual artist who is facilitating the birth of this film, Aloni returns in tears to the grave of Mer-Khamis along with members of the Freedom Theater troupe. The memorial of Mer-Khamis’ death  is part of the inspiration for this film–how will his Freedom Theater troupe continue to carry forward his legacy? Mer-Khamis’ troupe ply their imagination in an unpredictable environment, creating an artistic rebellion. This film is a window into a world rarely seen, one inhabited by a brave young, active generation of Palestinians artists ready to imagine reality otherwise. Art becomes a medium for resistance, and more importantly serves as that needed pathway that points to redemption, as the troupe adapts of Alice in Wonderland, Waiting for Godot and Antigone, with young Palestinian actresses confronting simultaneously the oppression of occupation and misogyny, violence and grief, on stage and in life. Documenting their breakthrough production of Beckett’s renowned existentialist drama, Waiting for Godot, played for the first time ever by two Palestinian female actors was mesmerizing, especially hearing it being translated and embodied into colloquial Arabic.

The film jumps back and forth through time, and through flashback recalls how the only prayer possible at Mer-Khamis’ funeral that could bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians was a wordless melody. Aloni then recalls the words to the wordless dirge that resonated during the earlier funeral footage.

The sound emerges through a faint, unseen but all-knowing harmonica riffing on Psalm 34: 13 — “Who is the man who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech. Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”

Although it was Zizek who remarked on the panel following the screening how poetry is the torturing of language as a substitute for torturing human beings—a kind of “radicalism of judgment” [din], all throughout it was Aloni’s “radicalism of grace” [hesed] that pervaded as just outside this utopian gathering, once again Middle East Peace talks were sputtering into hopelessness. What the film itself suggests is that art, when it is effective, has the capacity to plant the seeds of redemption in the desert.  Perhaps the Senate’s House Appropriations Committee would be better able to fulfill its mandate bill to “provide critical humanitarian assistance” if they turned from arms to activist artists like Juliano Mer-Khamis, Batoul Taleb, Mariam Abu-Khaled & Udi Aloni to serve as models for more than a moribund process, but a real bridge, that very touchstone of what it means to be human.