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Being Back Home: 'We Are All Part of One Story'

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Sderot.

On April 4 last year, actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis, the activist son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father, was leaving the Freedom Theater in the West Bank town of Jenin, his infant son Jay on his lap, when his car was flagged down by a masked assailant -- and Mer-Khamis was shot dead.

This month, Sderot, a city less than a mile away from Gaza, which has for the last decade been under an intermittent barrage of rocket attacks, hosted the annual Cinema South Festival -- and gave out a documentary prize in Mer-Khamis' name.

Mer-Khamis' onetime girlfriend Mishmish Ori, a tall elegant Israeli woman in a vintage black dress and high heels, traveled down from Tel Aviv with their daughter Milay, the eldest of Mer-Khamis' four children, so that the 11 year-old could present the award to one of the films.

"Thank you for continuing my father's journey," the pretty girl says as she hands lilies to Guy Davidi, an Israeli who co-directed "Five Broken Cameras" with Emad Burnat, a Palestinian. The title refers to the beatings Burnat's cameras took -- a metaphor for the blows he, his family and his community suffered during the years long face-off between their West Bank village of Bil'in and the Israeli military and settlers.

"Our cooperation was natural and not political. But it also was complicated," says Davidi, in his soft spoken way.

Burnat was given a rare travel permit by the Israeli authorities to attend the screening. But he called that morning to say he had lost the needed documents. Mer-Khamis' widow Jenny, a Finnish activist he married after he and Ori separated, and the mother of his son Jay -- as well as twins who were born after he was killed -- is not present either. Both these absences are complicated too.

"I had not intended to speak today. But I want to tell you something," Davidi says to Milay as he accepts the prize. "My father also died when I was a child of ten, which changed my life... but it eventually led me on a different and special path in life. I hope you too find a special path along your journey."

As far as unique journeys in this complex land go, Milay's father certainly set her a high bar. The product of a love story, eventually turned sour, between a Jewish pioneer cum Palestinian rights activist and a Christian Arab leader of the communist party in Nazareth, Mer-Khamis served as a paratrooper in an elite IDF unit, and then later in a military jail -- for refusing orders to drag an elderly Palestinian from his car.

He both fit in everywhere and nowhere. "I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish," he once said in an interview. And yet both sides considered him suspicious, with Muslim extremists in conservative Jenin going one further and accusing him of being a spy.

Mer-Khamis lived between Haifa and Jenin, co-founding the Freedom Theater there with Zacharia Zubeidi, once the military head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, whom he had inspired to abandon fighting for what he called "cultural resistance" against Israel instead. The children at the theater school adored him. Their parents, less so, with many feeling he was an unwelcome proselytizer for Western values -- encouraging their daughters to act alongside boys.

It is believed Mer-Khamis was murdered by a militant with ties to Hamas, but to date, no one has been charged. "It was a personal and a collective tragedy for us," says filmmaker Danae Elon, a friend of Mer-Khamis' who teaches at Sderot's Sapir College, which puts on the cinema festival. "He was gunned down for crossing impossible boundaries and for trying to prove to us all that, through faith and through art, everything is possible."

Outside the movie hall, besides signs pointing in the direction of the reinforced shelters, a reggae band plays under a white tent. The lead singer, a young Ethiopian immigrant in a faded t-shirt, is channeling Bob Marley. Students from Sapir mix with a smattering of locals and dozens of hip Tel Avivis who have driven south to watch films and dance barefoot in the early summer heat.

And inside, Burnat's story unfolds, a sobering tale of the separation barrier going up and through Bil'in land. Bulldozers uproot centuries-old olive trees and soldiers throw tear gas at unarmed protesters, while aggressive settlers drive up with furniture and mobile homes. Burnat films and films. In one surreal scene, soldiers come to the door of his home and insist that he turn off his camera because he is in a "closed military area." "But I am in my own home," he replies.

The film won the Sundance World Documentary Directing Award in 2012 and will open in limited release in Israel next month. Festivals in most Arab countries have declined to screen it because of the fact that it was co-directed by an Israeli.

Ori takes Milay out of the screening to see the other film playing down the hall, something about Kung Fu. "It is too soon," she explains, for the young girl to see the images depicted in Five Broken Cameras. "Too raw."

Afterwards, a cocktail in honor of the documentary is held in the backyard of Ella Hall, a small community center named for one of the 13 Israelis killed by Qassam rockets in recent years.

Ella Aboukasis was on her way home from a Bnai Akiva activity when the warning sirens caught her unprepared. She died, age 17, shielding her 10 year old brother Tamir. At her funeral, her father read a passage from a letter she once wrote to him. "Sometimes we tend to forget that life will be over one day, and we don't know when that day will come."

Students sip limoncello and munch on chocolate ruggaleh, wading through their mixed emotions about the film. One young man, just out of the army, is defensive: The portrayal of the soldiers as heartless is not fair. He was there. Another wishes there had been more focus on the many Israeli activists who joined the Palestinians in the fight.

Someone else is confused. How did the co-directing work? Is this the story of Burnat, whose voice is heard throughout and who filmed most of the scenes? Or that of Davidi, who edited years worth of footage, creating a cohesive narrative, and wrote a lot of the script. Whose story is it? He repeats.

"We are all part of one story," says filmmaker Elon, simply.

On the blue beanbags scattered on the grass, Ori and her friends smoke and make lazy small talk. Davidi talks about the concept of victimhood. He does not believe in it. He has tired of the never ending debate over who is the ultimate victim in the struggle. Conversation flows to the Freedom Theater. Just last week, Israeli soldiers arrested Nabil Al Raee, the theater's art director, in a night-time raid. He has been denied access to a lawyer. A week earlier, co-founder Zubeidi was seized -- by Palestinian Authority forces.

"Do you want to hear me sing? Hebrew or Arabic or English?" Milay asks, prancing around the adults, overexcited by all the attention on her. She flips her long hair and belts out Adele, her sultry voice belying her young age.

Tomorrow, she and her mother will accompany the Freedom Theater actors as they fly off to Berlin, to perform Alice in Wonderland. "Things have not been that great since my father was killed," she says. "But the theater helps me be strong. They miss him too." In the troupe's next production -- Waiting for Godot -- Milay has been given a small role. "I play a person who comes and says Godot will be arriving. Only he never does arrive. Which is a bummer," she explains.

According to a study carried out at Sapir several years ago, some 75 percent of the Sderot population is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of rocket attacks on the city. What does that look like, one wonders. Now, outside the cocktail party, the reggae band plays on -- "Iron Lion Zion," croons the singer. And the youngsters dance and spin around.