An American playwright and MLK scholar Dr. Clay Carson takes a choir of seven African American gospel singers to Palestine. There his play Passages of Martin Luther King has been adapted as Al Helm (the dream) by director Kamel El Basha for the Palestinian National Theatre Company.
The choir will be part of the production. Award-winning filmmaker Connie Field’s riveting documentary dramatically traces the developing consciousness of the singers, who know little about the struggles of Palestinians before their arrival, as they travel around performing with the local theater company.
The wisdom of MLK bridges the African American and Palestinian experiences of racism in a way that makes the powerful emotional impact of this film accessible to many audiences. Field opens with shots of Jerusalem and Martin Luther King Jr’s voice speaking about “temples of justice, temples of peace.”
Because the choir is relatively unprepared for the relentless brutality their Palestinian colleagues suffer, there are tensions and conflicts that only innocent good will and increasing experience can solve. “I’d rather not have someone take my picture before they say hi,” one actor complains when first meeting the Americans. We viewers share this journey to mutual understanding with the actors and singers. Along the way we meet unforgettable people, from young Michael, only a year after a bout of homelessness and now stepping up as the choir’s problem-solver, to Juliano Mer-Khamis, the beloved, charismatic founder of the Palestinian Freedom Theater, who laments, “We don’t dream anymore. Even the children only dream of death.”
As the choir members discover the level of distress in Palestinian lives at the hands of the Israeli occupiers, so the viewer begins to grasp that bitter concrete reality. We see “security” in the occupied territories so pervasive that there are security towers over the cemeteries. “They even occupy the dead people,” one actor explains. We are appalled by the contrast between the imprisoned Palestinian villages and the luxury Israeli settlements built on stolen land.
When a hideous murder is committed on the 43rd anniversary of the MLK assassination, the dark magic of this documentary shines. It has, in real time, captured the very real artistic and political overlap between MLK’s legacy and the Palestinian struggle, and done so with high production values and a commitment to honesty and clarity. This is the ultimate documentary: it entertains as it instructs, and no participant or viewer is left unmoved.
The Al Helm: MLK in Palestine trailer can be viewed here