Parallels abound in the latest film dealing with the Palestinian crisis. “Al helm,” which means “the dream” in Arabic, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s well known “dream” come together in a unique and profound manner in Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine. It follows an African American gospel group led by Stanford professor and King scholar Clayborne Carson who travel to Palestine in March 2011 to perform an original play about King written by Carson. While there, the small choir of political neophytes quickly discover the repressive conditions Palestinians endure daily under the Israeli occupation, and empathy develops between peoples who have a shared history of oppression.
But soon upon arrival, there are signs of cultural shock. The Americans pull out their cameras and offend some of the locals, who prefer to get to know people as humans before their pictures are taken. The language barrier alienates some of the choir members, and Dr. Carson soon discovers that the Palestinian director Kamel El Basha has not only re-written some lines, but changed the order of some scenes without permission. In a seemingly futile attempt to negotiate against failure, the newest young member of the choir, just previously homeless, innocently comes up with a brilliant solution to propel the production forward and help resolve differences.
It isn’t long before the Americans befriend their fellow Palestinian actors, visiting their homes and meeting their families, and discovering their harsh living conditions under occupation. As the Arab actors read King’s lines about the U.S. civil rights movement, and African Americans experience oppressed people in a new country, there is a transformation in their appreciation and awareness of each other’s history of struggle.
Director and producer Connie Field is no newcomer to the area of political documentaries. Her 1985 award-winning classic The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter has become a benchmark in progressive film circles.
Field’s 1994 film Freedom on My Mind, an Academy Award nominee, covers the civil rights movement in Mississippi, and Field’s seven-part series on apartheid, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, certainly helped lay the groundwork for an appreciation of the parallels between South Africa and Palestine.
Her films focus on activism, and in Al Helm she aims the camera at a group of Palestinians, led by a student of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach, Fadi Quran, as activists board a segregated “settlers only” bus, reminiscent of the Freedom Riders.
The film follows the troupe as it travels to several cities to perform their Martin Luther King play with a message the Palestinians know only too well. When they arrive in the northern town of Jenin, they are met by one of the country’s legendary actors, Juliano Mer Khamis, who is known worldwide for his work with the Jenin Freedom Theater. His film, Arna’s Children, a tribute to his Jewish mother and the school she founded for Palestinian youth, is one of the most heartrending films in all of cinema. When she dies of cancer, he is determined to keep the school going, while appearing on TV and making movies such as Wedding in Galilee, Salt of This Sea and Miral.
While visiting the Freedom Theater, the troupe is enraptured by his charisma and skill at involving youth in theater. Discovering freedom in theater (and life), the local kids, who’ve only ever known stress, line up outside the theater just to be part of this great experiment. But his daring reputation for challenging the authorities and the status quo eventually meets resistance. While predicting his own fate, Juliano Mer Khamis, at the age of 52, was gunned down in his car by an unknown assailant in front of his beloved school – on the morning of April 4, 2011. The same date King was assassinated in 1968. And the same day the King play was being performed in Palestine.
It was the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign that pounded the final nail in the coffin of South African apartheid. The U.S. government that long supported apartheid and helped jail Nelson Mandela, was eventually forced to come around. As the African American community shares its experiences in civil rights struggles and joins the struggle to end the occupation of Palestine, it will be only a matter of time before the U.S. government (and Israel) will be forced to face the realities of an illegal and cruel oppression of the Palestinian people, too reminiscent of the treatment of Blacks leading up to our own civil rights movement days.
This emotionally inspiring film joins the ranks of powerful documentaries about the Palestinian struggle that express the power and beauty of art to foster social change – Juliano’s own gem, Arna’s Children, and Daniel Barenboim 2005 masterpiece, Knowledge is the Beginning. How true.
You can find out more about Al Helm and Connie Field’s other films at clarityfilms org.