Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine 2013
Distributed by Clarity Films, 2600 Tenth Street, Suite 412, Berkeley, CA 94710; 510-841-3469
Produced by Connie Field
Directed by Connie Field
DVD, color, 88 min.
Jr. High - General Adult
Israel, West Bank Occupied Palestinian Territories, Middle East, Political Science, Martin Luther King, Nonviolence, African Americans, Theater, Gospel Music
Date Entered: 09/09/2014Reviewed by Barbara J. Walter, Longmont Public Library, Longmont, CO
…a beautiful and dangerous thing was occurring: art and life’s lines had blurred. - Reflections from Ré Phillips, Clarity Films
In Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine, director Connie Field captures this blurring of lines between art and life when African-American gospel singers join forces with Palestinian actors to present Dr. King’s message of hope, peace and nonviolent resistance to audiences in the occupied West Bank.
Al Helm (“the dream” in Arabic) unfolds in four parts. “Act One: The Rehearsal” sets the scene—Israel, March 2011, with pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring surging through the Middle East—and introduces seven gospel singers, MLK scholar and playwright Dr. Clayborne Carson, actors from the Palestinian National Theatre and their director, Kamel El-Basha. Tensions develop early on, especially when Carson finds out his play about King has been rewritten, cracked open by El-Basha and cast to become a play within their play, Al Helm. But as choir members and actors, playwright and director interact on and offstage, understanding and empathy replace initial tensions; choir members in particular come to realize that issues raised in the play—identity, civil rights, violence vs. nonviolence, our basic human need for hope, for a dream to sustain us—are issues the Palestinian people grapple with daily.
In “Act Two: The Tour,” director Field points up the harsh realities of life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories—security wall, roadblocks, checkpoints, camps surrounded by electric fences and guard towers where no one goes in or out without a permit. A high point for a number of the performers on tour is their stop at Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp. Founded in 2006 by actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, it “…offers the very basic elements of life to children, to people, to grownups, to women, to men—freedom.” After the Second Intifada in 2002 turned Jenin into a battleground, Juliano succeeded in convincing many among the resistance to put down their weapons and take up the stage. Freedom Theatre became a platform for resistance of a different sort, a factory for ideas that challenge and provoke. Highly-regarded especially among Palestinian youth, Juliano and his theatre are controversial, unafraid to tackle “dangerous” topics, fostering hope in a place where even children have forgotten how to dream.
Then “Act Three: The Finale” opens with heartbreaking news— a day before the final performance of Al Helm and on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Juliano Mer-Khamis is gunned down in front of his theatre in Jenin. Shocked and grieving, the company decides nevertheless to proceed, dedicating the performance to the memory of Juliano. Footage from this emotionally raw final performance, juxtaposed with footage of Mer-Khamis’ funeral, drives home the impression that we’re no longer watching a play, but life played out on stage. The lines blur…
“The Epilogue: Some Months Later” confirms that while Palestine has lost a great actor/activist, the theatre he founded continues to offer freedom and hope to Jenin’s refugees. And a growing number of young Palestinians, patterning their actions on those of African-American activists of the 1960s, continue their nonviolent struggle for civil rights.
Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine is a beautiful, inspiring film that deserves the widest possible audience. Top-notch in technical quality and an excellent discussion starter on a difficult topic, Al Helm is a winning choice for public, academic or church libraries. Special features provide additional glimpses into life for Palestinians under occupation. Chaptered. In English and Arabic, with English subtitles.
- Audience Award, Mill Valley Film Festival 2013
- CrossCurrents Foundation Justice Matters Award, Washington DC International Film Festival 2014