In the film, Al Helm [The Dream]: Martin Luther King in Palestine, an African-American gospel choir travels to the West Bank to work with members of the Palestinian National Theater on a play about Martin Luther King, Jr.
The unusual collaboration, the idea of American playwright Clayborne Carson, was the subject of a new documentary presented at the annual Washington, DC, International Film Festival.
“From the very beginning I’ve been very curious about the idea of bringing King to new cultures. He’s no longer an American cultural possession. He’s a global icon, and I want to tell King’s story in a way that’s going to resonate with Palestinians,” Carson said.
Filmmaker Connie Field, who is Jewish, traveled with the group to document the play, but ended up capturing much more.
“I just became so fascinated with what was going to happen, largely with the African-American choir and what were they going to experience seeing the Palestinian Territories for the first time, especially given what they’ve been brought up to believe," Field said. "And they talk in fact about thinking all Palestinians were terrorists and so I just said ‘I’ve got to see what happens here.’ And that became the story really.”
By performing together as they toured the West Bank, the Christians and Muslims had an opportunity to learn about each other.
“They had the experience of seeing them completely different than who they thought they were," Field said. "It was really quite amazing.”
The choir also visited the Jenin refugee camp.
"I was so happy to sit in the audience watching a play about MLK," said Mustapha Staiti, a Palestinian actor. "In a refugee camp, you don’t have much opportunities of learning what’s happening outside of the camp.”
While in Jenin, the group met Juliano Mer-Khamis, a popular Israeli-Palestinian actor, who founded a community theater there.
They witnessed the sometimes violent life under occupation when Mer-Khamis was murdered by a masked gunman, ironically on the anniversary of King's assassination.
During the trip, the choir met Palestinian Fadi Quran, one of playwright Carson’s former students at Stanford University.
"He's a politically serious young man who wholeheartedly believes in non-violence and has been working that way in Palestine,” said Field.
"The play about MLK and the civil rights struggle generally happening in Palestine means a lot to me," Quran said. "When people see the success that MLK achieved, it gives people hope."
In the end, Field believes the trip was a transformative experience for everyone involved.
“They [the choir] wouldn’t take this and become spokespeople all over but I think it’s really, definitely changed them inside; very much,” she said.