Diego Maradona (UK 2019)

Maradona has media attention at San Paolo in Napoli

This is the third documentary biopic by Asif Kapadia following Senna (UK 2010) and Amy (UK 2015). It certainly matches the brilliance of those two earlier films. Kapadia, editor Chris King and music composer Antonio Pinto have again excelled themselves in creating a compelling narrative from found footage (mostly from the subject’s own archive) and audio interviews. I don’t think, however, that the three subjects are necessarily comparable. Certainly they each had careers with stellar periods and a strong emotional bond with fans but although they were both South American sporting legends, Ayrton Senna and Diego Maradona came from different backgrounds and the impulses behind the endings of their careers were quite different. Amy Winehouse was in some ways equally troubled by her attempts to deal with success and her emotional life as was Maradona but the music industry of the 2000s provides a different context to football in the 1980s.

Maradona, World Cup winner in Mexico 1986

If you don’t know the Maradona story, the film is mainly concerned with the period Diego Maradona spent as a footballer at Napoli between 1984 and 1991. He was 23 when he signed for Napoli after two seasons at Barcelona and 30 when he left Napoli. There is some coverage of his childhood and early career and a brief coda about what happened when he left Napoli. The focus on this period also includes his appearances with the Argentinian national team which won the the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and were beaten finalists in ‘Italia 90’ – West Germany were the opponents on each occasion.

Asif Kapadia is a football fan according to his tweets about supporting Liverpool. Yet one of the odd points about his Maradona film is that, despite a lot of footage from games featuring Napoli and Argentina, the film does not explore football itself in the way that Senna seemed to me to be partly ‘about’ motor racing. However, I did find the football match footage fascinating. Maradona made goals for other players that were deceptively simple but often scored goals himself that seemed to be magical in the way he bent the ball. The primary focus of the film is the footballer’s psychological profile which is outlined here by his personal trainer at Napoli.

Diego with his parents

The personal trainer tells us that Diego the young man is vulnerable because of his insecurities. He is a family man close to his mother and a likeable person. Maradona the footballer, bought for the then record transfer fee of $6.9 million in 1984 is, by contrast, constructed to survive in top class football. He develops a carapace to protect himself and his skills. ‘Maradona’ is a much more troubling character who looks for diversions in the wrong places when he is not training and playing. The narrative of his life then becomes the story of how ‘Maradona’ becomes almost a God in Naples before destroying himself and almost destroying Diego. Kapadia called his film ‘Diego Maradona’ – both names – whereas the earlier films, ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’, used only one.

As in the other films, the archive footage tells the story through the edit, with ‘witness’ interviews played in audio over the archive material. I don’t think anyone is interviewed on screen by Kapadia or his team, though there are several archive interviews. The film flows because of the brilliance of the editing decisions, both what to include and how to cut it, and the music. It runs for 130 minutes and though some have suggested the match footage could be shortened, most football fans will want to see all of it – partly because we are offered different viewpoints than was usual for 1980s TV coverage. Because most of the footage is from video recordings or 8mm film the disparity between 35mm film and video is not so pronounced. The two World Cup finals and a later Argentinian TV interview from 2004 stand out in terms of higher definition. I assume that the video material has been cropped in many cases but I was so taken up with the pace of the narrative that I didn’t notice any changes of aspect ratio or obvious cropping.

One other difference in this Kapadia film is the importance of Napoli as a location, but also as a ‘character’ in the story. I hadn’t realised just how much Napoli was seen as an underperforming club in Serie A before Maradona’s arrival or how much the North-South divide mattered in Italian football. Napoli’s stadium, San Paolo was finally completed in 1959 but when Maradona is first introduced to fans at the stadium in 1984 I was struck by the long walk to the pitch from the bowels of the stadium with high walls over which the crowds could see Maradona emerging on the pitch. I was reminded of gladiators entering the arena in Roman times. Later, when Maradona reached his highest status with the fans, murals began to appear  claiming him as the modern manifestation of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint.

What most intrigued me was the inclusion of two or three soundbites in which Maradona is referred to (in the subtitles) as “this black kid from a poor neighbourhood”. Kapadia clearly chose these clips but the format doesn’t really allow any discussion of the implication that some of Maradona’s problems come from the prejudice that his family faced in Argentina and elsewhere. I was reminded of the not dissimilar case of Luis Suaréz who has been a highly successful South American player in European football for over ten years, but like Maradona he has also been embroiled in various controversial incidents (all on the field). In 2011 as a Liverpool player Suaréz was banned for eight matches and fined for using racist language in an altercation with Patrice Evra. Suaréz did not accept the charge, claiming that the use of terms for ‘black’ in Latin America was different to that in Europe. There is a long tradition of South American players signing for clubs in Spain and Italy, but in the 1980s the film suggests that Maradona still felt an outsider.

Asif Kapadia does include the moment when Maradona became notorious in England with the ‘hand of God’ goal in Mexico – but also scored one of the greatest World Cup goals. The link is made to the Malvinas War which I’m sure was a worrying time for Argentinians as well as for those of us in the UK who didn’t support Thatcher’s war. I noted that the footage of the game in Mexico revealed some horrendous English fouls as the players sought in vain to negate Maradona’s influence on the game.

Maradona celebrates with his daughter, Dalma(?)

Overall, although I really enjoyed the film and I recommend it highly, I’m wondering now if there is enough worthwhile material to make a longer documentary serial for TV. I’d like to know more about football culture and institutions in Italy, Argentina and worldwide in the 1980s and I’d also like a little more about ‘Diego’ as well as about Maradona.

Pavilion: Artists on Film

 

This series of events organised by the Pavilion visual arts project based in Leeds was screening at the Hyde Park Picture House and a small venue in the Grand Theatre complex in New Briggate. At the invitation of the Pavilion Herb Shellenberger [from Philadelphia but now resident in London] curated an ambitious programme of films by artists; some film-makers but some artists first. Will Rose introducing the opening event admitted that the programme was larger than originally envisaged. There were seven separate screenings with 33 separate films ranging in length from 4 minutes to well over an hour. In his introduction Herb explained that artists based in Yorkshire were contributing but that their art works would be placed ‘in dialogue with work from international artists.

The opening event on a Friday evening saw the Picture House screening two 35mm prints: ‘Bliss it was in that [even] to be alive’. And better still the main feature was one of the outstanding masterworks from the French film-maker, photographer, writer, traveler and eccentric, Chris Marker. Marker died in 2012 after a life full of quirky artistic work. He was a collaborator with Alain Resnais and a friend and colleague of the recently deceased Agnes Varda. These two shared a love of cats. All three were part of the ‘left bank group’ ; a key but overlooked movement within the nouvelle vague. Their films were more experimental, more political and more distinctive than the  famous ‘new wave’ films. Marker himself is known for works described as ‘essay films’ and this title is a good example of that approach. Not exactly documentary but addressing the actual world  Wikipedia defines [informal] written essays as characterised by:

“the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humour, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,”

Much of this will be found in the Marker film. As well as his personal involvement in so much of the production of the film Marker also appears in slightly fictionalised versions of himself.

The film’s written component is a series of letters read [in parts] with comments by an unidentified female character. The letters are from a cameraman visiting a variety of places: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. The last includes locations used in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly regarded Vertigo (1958), a film that has pre-occupied Marker for years. He remarks that he has seen the film nineteen times; I am not sure if I have ever seen a film that many times, but it could be Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925 USSR). I actually did the same homage to the Vertigo with a French guide and Marker fan.

The largest part of Sans Soleil are the sequences from Japan and from Guinea-Bissau / Cape Verde; societies that Marker suggests are

“two extreme poles of survival.”

This is illustrated in the film. Marker also notes the political context with archive footage of the African Liberation struggle and one charismatic leader, Amilcar Cabral.

The original French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine

“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”

(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the time).

Marker shot the film on a 16mm camera in colour and standard European widescreen. There is found footage and stills/freeze frame in colour and black and white academy. And some of the film is synthesised by a colleague. He recorded the soundtrack in asynchronous manner,  thus the sound does not always match the imagery. So this is ‘montage’ in the full sense of the word. The screening presented the original French language version in a 35mm print in good condition.

Sans Soleil was preceded by a short five minute film, also on 35mm. This was Black by Anouk De Clercq (Belgium, 2015). This was the only print of this art work which by now was showing signs of wear and tear. The sub-titles noted this suggesting the film picked up on a point early in the Marker film where the film-maker addresses the use of black leader. I did wonder if either film-maker had the Soviet artist Kazemir Valedich in mind.

The second screening I attended was titled ‘The Gentle Touch’ and presented five titles featuring:

“Stone, flesh, blood or electric circuit, feet on the ground versus data in the cloud. From automaton to avatar, artists reflect on the tension between our own individual, physical bodies and the animated, virtual body.” (Curator’s Notes)

Three of the regional film-makers attended and spoke about their work after the screening.

The first title was The Love of Statues (2019) by Peter Samson, based in Doncaster. This was a combination of film, found footage and archive stills. Shot partly in Paris at the museum of the Salpetriere Asylum containing a bevy of C19th objects. It was shot in black and white and partly in widescreen and partly in academy ratio.  Peter explained that he had worked on the material several time over the years and this was the most recent version. He had to edit together materials in different ratios. The theme at the asylum was hypnosis and hysteria but the  visual theme of this title was bodies in relation to both statues and automaton. It had an eerie feeling and much of the film was in chiaroscuro.

Self-digitalisation (2015) by James Thompson ran for nine minutes in colour and widescreen. This was in a single long shot of a picture gallery at Hospitalfield House where Thomson was on an artist residency. The film  aimed to ‘re-interpret’ the room and objects as a young man took a series of digital self-portraits, ‘selfies’. These were done at speed in an arch manner. If we were meant to look at the art through these it failed for me; and as a satirical take on the ‘selfie’ it needed more angles or positions.

Dog’s Dialogue / Colloque de chiens (France 1977) was a 22 minute ‘photo-roman’ by Raúl Ruiz, screened from a colour 35mm print. The English sub-titles were projected digitally. A ‘photo-roman’ uses a series of still shots to offer some sort of narrative. This one was unconventional as it included moving images, both of the titular dogs and, later, of a location. The various dogs, mainly tied up and barking, were some sort of metaphor. The humans in the story proper went through a cycle of events that

“consists of news items collected in magazines. A melodramatic pseudo-detective thread woven round imagery from women’s magazines.” (Institut Français).

In what seemed to be a homage to the photo-roman’s founder, Chris Marker, at one point a ‘still image’ turned into a brief moment of movement.

This film was typical of Ruiz’s work in France, where he was an exile after the coup in his native Chile. His work was literary, ironic, sardonic and experimental. It was also, as with this title, always engaging.

Another film on 35mm with digital subtitles was Au Père Lachaise (France 1986) a thirteen minute title by Jean-Daniel & Pierre-Marie Goulet. This is a Municipal cemetery in Paris, apparently the most visited in the world It is the earlier example of as ‘garden cemetery’. Many famous people lie there, notably Oscar Wilde. And the Institut Français offered a quotation from another famous inmate, Honoré de Balzac.

“It’s all of Paris but seen through the looking glass, a microscopic Paris reduced to the dimensions of shadows, larvae, death, a human race that has nothing more than vanity’”

The vanity is obvious in some of the monumental graves, similar to those found in London’s Highgate cemetery. However, the film was more interested in the space, arrangement and foliage; something that disappointed at least one viewer.

The film used a series of tracking shots, interspersed with long shots to close-ups; reminiscent of the style of Alain Resnais. To its credit the film did end with an note about 147 people associated with the cemetery; the heroes and heroine so f the Paris Commune, executed nearby and commentated by a simple plaque.

The memorial to the Communards

The Turning of the Helmet (2018) by Rhian Cooke, an artist currently involved in the Yorkshire Sculpture International. The film ran 3 minutes in colour and 16:9, [television funding]. The opening of the film used animation techniques playing with ceramics and textiles to offer a sense of the helmet. The later stage expanded into actual cinematography to present a pill box which was an inspiration for work with a helmet. This was well done but [for me as is often the way with very personal experimental film] I did not really engage with the thematics.

I had a similar problem with Soft Body Goal (Finland, 2010) a four minute title by Jaako Pallsasvuo. This combined digital animation and dubbed sound with a bevy of bodies;

“Body without bone. Sloppy and improper. Body seepage. Naked sewer rats. Hairless aristocratic cats. Slime …. the body of the future ….”

However, the techniques used were impressive.

We almost did not see the final title, Ice Cream. This was a 1970 16mm film copied onto a digital format; I suspect there were compatibility problems because we had three false starts. However, the film repaid the wait. The director, Antoni Padrós, was an underground Catalan film-maker. Born during the Spanish Civil War most of his career was spent under the Francoist dictatorship. His film work was subversive, iconic and iconoclastic. This title featured two young people, explicit sex and the titular ice cream. It clearly subverted and made fun of the repressive values and censorship of the times. One could almost imagine a Franco stooge banning ice creams for a period.

I felt that the older European titles had political as well as aesthetic stances. Whereas the more recent British titles were far more personal and did not have overt political themes: They were also apparently more preoccupied with aesthetics. The former are closer to the key film of the programme, Sans Soleil, which combined politics and aesthetic in a complexly cinematic manner.

A third programme was ‘Sail the Summer Winds’. I was unclear regarding the overall programme title: sea-scapes seen a common feature.

The opening film was A Mysterious Devotion (1973), written and directed by Alf Bowers & Andy Birtles. They were fellow students at what was then Sheffield Polytechnic. This institution funded the filming. The completion and editing was done by Bowers whilst a student at the new National Film School.

Herb Shellenberger in his written introduction commented;

“Alf Bowers A Mysterious Devotion evidences several decades of wildly creative and experimental film-making in Yorkshire. The ambitious 16mm cinemascope film [in black and white] is an oblique narrative following several members of a family as they experience and process a traumatic death. There is no dialogue but the camera stalks its actors around the house and at the seaside, at times claustrophobically close and others in wide shots at the sea.”

Alf Bowers and answered questions after the screening. He noted that the film was based on ideas that were in

“the heads of the protagonists … things that could have happened.”

He suggested the only event that was certainly actual was the death of the father at the opening of the film. And the plotting followed the proposal by Jean-Luc Godard,

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

Alf Bowers with Herb Shellenberger and Will Rose

The film was shot in a house in Sheffield and at Flamborough Head. The anamorphic lens used was a projection model, which made the camerawork extremely difficult, The film used filters for one shot and high speed cinematography for two sequence. The film stock used was Kodak Plus-X, [also used on Schindler’s List ( 1993). This produced a high-contrast image. However, whilst there is a 16mm print available the film was screened from a digital copy. There was apparently a technical reason for this. However, the digital copy did not really do justice to the high-contrast imagery: most of the film was reasonable but there were two sequences, including the end credits, where the images was not distinct enough. This was the first screening  of the film for about 20 years so it is a shame we did not see a pristine version . It remains a powerful and impressive short film, running 47 minutes.

The Eraser / Keshigomu (Japan, 1977) by Shūji Terayama. This was a 20 minute film on 16mm in colour and academy. The setting is a seashore and we see several characters posing here and in an interior. But the image is overlaid by video filter patterns. And a hand appears frequently using the technique to erase part of the image. As Herb Shellenberger commented,

“a unique conceptual work that is difficult to define.”

Alaska (Germany 1969) by film-maker Dore O who co-founded the Hamburger Filmmacher Cooperative. In black and white and colour the film shared a technique with The Eraser: in this example polka dots cover and obscure a range of subjects, animals, people, settings. The film also has a distinctive sound track using musical instruments, machine noise and recorded sound. Herb Shellenberger’s comment is similar though:

“a film that resists all interpretations.”

All three films demonstrated film-makers working with unconventional and experimental techniques.

I was able to catch three of the seven programmes so my sense of the overall was limited. However, this was an impressive collection of artistic films, many of them rare, especially in theatrical presentations. It is good that The Pavilion and the Hyde Park Picture House were prepared to be so adventurous. The largest audience was for Sans Soleil, the best known work in the weekend. Other audiences were smaller but we are dealing with avant-garde work. It is nice to know that an audience exists for this less commercial but influential area of cinema.

Article 15 (India, Hindi 2019)

Article 15 opened the recent London Indian Film Festival and went on to win the festival’s Audience Award. It took me a few days to realise that it was also released in UK cinemas and fortunately I managed to catch it before it disappeared. Like most contemporary Indian ‘independent’ films it seems to have struggled in Bradford. That’s a shame because this is a hard-hitting drama that had me pinned to my seat for 130 minutes. The title refers to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution of 1950 which lays down equality in the eyes of the law for all Indian citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, caste, gender or place of birth. In reality it has been very difficult to uphold the rights enshrined in Article 15, especially in village communities where traditional values prove difficult to challenge.

Thew chief officer Ayaan Ranjan with his plain clothes PR man and his driver Nihal Singh (Sushil Pandey)

Writer-director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer Gaurav Solanki have written a script which sees the familiar figure of a sophisticated urban police officer (an officer of the IPS – Indian Police Service) sent to rural Uttar Pradesh to take charge of a district police station – only to find himself immediately embroiled in a case which challenges all his beliefs. (The suggestion is that his posting is some form of ‘punishment’ by the Home Ministry or senior management of the IPS.) The IPS is an ‘All India Service’ that operates across the Union and provides senior officers for state police – I think the officer here is a Superintendent of a Rural District. The narrative is loosely inspired by two historical cases of gang-rape in 2014 and public flogging in 2016. Three young teenage girls go missing but two of them are soon discovered murdered and their fathers charged with honour killing. The new police chief is suspicious about the swift resolution of the case and the subsequent failure to find the third girl. He discovers that caste discrimination is at the centre of the problem which further involves exploitation of child labour and communal tensions around election campaigns. The narrative develops as a police procedural with political interference.

A misty dawn as the the new District Chief is shown the bodies of the two girls.

The film has a very distinctive look, ‘feel’ and sound design. Cinematography by Ewan Mulligan on his third shoot for the director is extraordinary. Many of the scenes take place from ‘dusk to dawn’ so that the villages are constantly dark and dim, lit by torches or fires. As one journalist puts it: “Even the weather becomes a metaphor for the fog of lies in the village” (Gayle Sequeira, Film Companion website). When there is full daylight, the image is often de-saturated so that the world is reduced to tones of grey, green and yellow and mists shroud scenes. Mulligan cites Tarkovsky and Gordon Willis as his inspiration. Both cinematographer and director were aware of the likely comparisons with American narratives about crusading cops going into the Deep South and grappling with traditional communities.  The ‘feel’ of the film comes as much from horror films as from procedurals (Mulligan has a background including horror shoots). The use of music in the film is both unsettling and unusual. Much of the time the use of music cues to emphasise shocks and a general feel of ‘dread’ seems overplayed. The film opens with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and closes with a rap number. In between, the credits suggested several songs but I don’t remember hearing them – there is far too much going on. The title credits suggest two main production companies for the film, the private company Benaras Mediaworks (which also produced Sinha’s two previous films) and the TV/Music company Zee Entertainment. I’m not sure if Zee’s involvement makes this a mainstream film, but ‘Bollywood’ it ain’t. It’s getting increasingly difficult to distinguish what might be an Independent or ‘Hindie’ film.

Language itself is one of the key elements of the film. Though most of the dialogue is in Hindi, the central character of the senior officer Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) speaks English at key moments and there is a joke about his use of ‘Fuck’, uttered when he is angered by what he finds. In a confrontation with the senior CBI agent sent to take over the case, Ranjan’s background (private school, time spent in London) and his use of English is criticised, suggesting he doesn’t understand the locals. He is advised to use Hindi but he retaliates by suggesting that the agent speaks Hindi as a second language. (The agent is played by the Tamil actor Nassar.) One of the strengths of the film (and possibly a weakness in appealing to mainstream audiences and non-Indian audiences) is the detailed dialogue exchanges about caste and about politics. I was intrigued to learn that it is an offence to ask someone what caste they belong to. This matters little in the investigation and Ranjan gradually uncovers the the hierarchies that exist in the villages and how they are present among his police officers. I would have been more lost if I hadn’t spent time learning about Scheduled Tribes and Castes in studying other Indian films. One of the key images in the film is the extraordinary sight of a man lowered into an overflowing drain and emerging completely coated with filthy material. I was reminded of Court (India 2014) and Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) films which explore the injustices and discrimination suffered by Dalits.

Aditi (Isha Talwar) is perhaps underused

Although the central theme about caste discrimination and corruption in the police and local government is prompted by gang-rape, the violence towards women is not really explored in detail. Ranjan has a partner Aditi who is an activist/journalist but for most of the film she only communicates with him by phone/text though she does join him towards the end of the narrative. There are also a couple of significant female characters in the district who are key to Anjan exposing the corruption. It’s also important that the rapes are presented as being about power – over the women, over all workers and power used to maintain caste discrimination. I don’t think it would have been possible to explore the legal framework around rape in the necessary detail in this film. I hope it will be explored in similar films in the future.

The performances are are all very good. I realised later that I had seen Ayushmann Khurrana’s first film role as the lead in Vicky Donor (India 2012), a very different kind of film, though in its own way a challenge to the mainstream. I’ll try to find some of his other films. I’m not sure about his hair style for Article 15!

Ranjan eventually persuades all the police units to join the search for the missing girl

The film may have struggled in Bradford but it has made a big impact in India and in other international markets. It had grossed Rs 34 crore (nearly $5million) after just a week on release in India with over $1 million overseas. In the UK it just missed the Top 15 with 55 screens earning £50,000 in the first weekend. I noted that it screened without an Intermission in Bradford, whereas Indian reviews suggest it still had one there. I think an Intermission might have diminished its power, but on the other hand it might have enabled some reflection on what was an intense first half. Reading various reviews, the one that stands out is the Sight and Sound (August 2019) review by Naman Ramachandran who argues that the Indian state was long seen as ‘secular’ but that Narendra Modi’s two election victories have seen the rise of the ‘Hindu state’. In this context, the failure of the state to enforce the rights of all and to in effect allow caste discrimination is a truly terrifying prospect. The film’s resolution suggests the possibility that the community can come together to search for the missing girl but doesn’t promise that such cases won’t arise again.

Official trailer (no English subs but a reasonable representation of the visual style):

Gaza (Ireland-Palestine 2019)

This was the second film I watched at the Delius Arts Centre during Bradford’s 2019 Refugee Week. As with Beats of the Antonov, this was a screening with a very engaged and committed audience who, as the post-screening discussion revealed, were supportive of the Palestinian cause. We were privileged to see this film which was first screened at Sundance in January 2019 and has not, to my knowledge, been theatrically released in the UK.

Gaza is credited with twin directors, Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell. Both are Irish and both are highly experienced in their own fields but are here making a first theatrical documentary. Garry Keane has been making documentary films for television since the 1990s. Andrew McConnell is an award-winning photographer who has specialised in projects in parts of the world where conflict and displacement are common. He has lived in Beirut for the last eight years. Garry Keane owns the production company Real Films and this is a co-production with Canadian input and what appears to be a local/regional crew. Gaza is very restricted, because of the blockade, in terms of local equipment and facilities for filmmaking. That’s something the film might have explored.

The Ambulance paramedic

As you might imagine Gaza is beautifully photographed with arresting imagery and it is put together with great skill (and some great music). It introduces us to a range of people living and working in Gaza and offers images of a unique community of 2 million people crammed into a narrow strip of land. We rarely see such images in TV coverage of the conflict between its residents and the Israeli state which controls its two longest borders (the other closed border is with Egypt to the south). It’s perhaps best to let the directors present their intentions themselves:

From the very beginning we wanted to address the disparity between perception and reality. Having spent years working on the ground, we knew that Gaza was so much more than its portrayal in the media. This unique and vibrant land, rich in culture and history, is home to a people who are oppressed and dehumanised but who are also resilient and strong, and who want nothing more than to live normal lives.

. . . Through a cast of major and minor characters, we meet Palestinians from all walks of life, who individually have a strong story to tell but who together, create a portrait of Gaza like no other. The siege, brought on by history, Israel, Hamas and the abandonment of the international community, is the villain of our story. (Directors’ Notes – see the whole statement on www.gazadocumentary.com)

I’m certainly not going to disagree with the first statement and the film’s biggest achievement is to represent the resilience of the people of Gaza in the face of the most difficult conditions imaginable. The problem with the film for me lies in its structure and in the last statement above which suggests that there is a clear villain in the story. I question the definition of the ‘villain’, but perhaps the fact that for most of the time the filmmakers try to avoid ‘political issues’ – but are then forced to face them by circumstance – means they actually create more confusion and frustration than if they had taken a clearer line to begin with.

The primary aim seems to be to present us with individuals and families in Gaza (they don’t say if this is Gaza City or other settlements further down the coastal strip). We meet a whole range of people from cello-playing student Karma to a tailor, from an ambulance driver to a taxi driver and from a family of traditional fishermen to a theatre director and many more. Each is presented in situ and given the opportunity to tell their story – there is no ‘authorial commentary’ as such. During the period in which they shot the film, the directors were faced with some of the most violent altercations along the border with many casualties amongst Gaza’s youth and bomb damage which killed families further away from the border. This is shown, sometimes in long shots, sometimes up close, sometimes with shaky hand-held camerawork in the midst of the running crowds. We never see the Israelis who fire across the border at the youths hurling stones but we do get a glimpse of a huge rally of Hamas supporters and a few shots of Palestinian paramilitaries.

Getting the wounded out of the firing line

My worry is that for audiences who don’t know the intricacies of the politics of resistance by the Palestinians, these ‘glimpses’ are likely to be confusing. For instance, at one point we see a banner with Yasser Arafat’s face and also a banner for the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), opposed to both Hamas and Fatah (the Palestinian political party founded by Arafat). In the film, Hamas appears to be something like a dark cloud hanging over the territory. I know it’s difficult to present the political situation in an objective way and that you can’t show everything in a 90 minute documentary, but by not discussing, explaining or confronting Hamas while at the same time showing them on the ground, a political position is being adopted by default.

The other problem with the structure is that there are arguably too many people who speak, often saying similar things – and that the people who do speak are mainly men. Apart from the cello-player and her mother I don’t remember other female witnesses (i.e. who speak on camera) and this seems a mistake in the current climate. Most of the people who do speak are self-employed or in public service jobs. We know half the working population are unemployed so why don’t we hear more from them? Reading the notes on the film’s official website it seems that the main structuring device is to show the the cello player and one of the fisherman’s sons as contrasting figures, but I think that gets lost in the range of other stories we hear.

The fisherman’s sons

All of this may sound like nit-picking and an attempt to prescribe what the film should do. I can appreciate that but another point is that documentary is something of a Palestinian specialism. For many years documentaries formed the major share of all Palestinian film production. Now we have diaspora filmmakers returning to the West Bank to make films and others living in Israel or occupied territories making fiction films. Those Palestinian films are usually committed to the Palestinian desire to get back control of their lands. It seems this film wants to simply state: “This is how people in Gaza live.” By not mentioning the politics perhaps they will get wider audiences on TV? But they still won’t avoid the charge of ‘propaganda’ – see The Hollywood Reporter review.

The film shows the closed border crossing to Egypt but does not explain why it is closed. An Egyptian in the Bradford audience pointed out that Egyptians who might ordinarily have supported their “brothers in Gaza” have come to believe that Hamas is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which formed the first administration in Cairo after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. I also suspect that the Egyptian military, as the real power in the country, is now aligned to American foreign policy and therefore to the American-Israeli alliance.

I want to re-assert that the film does present the resilience of Gazans and it also stresses the despair and the insult that comes from the 3 mile limit for Gaza’s access to the sea imposed by Israel. At one time Gaza was famous for its fish, said to be the best in the East Mediterannean. Since this film was made the limit has been extended to 12 miles in the central coastal area and six miles in the North and South. This is still less than the 20 mile zone set for the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. Many believe the blockade and its enforcement by Israeli gunboats is illegal under international law. In the film, many of the interviewees look out to sea and the fisherman greets his son who has been imprisoned by the Israelis for fishing beyond the three mile limit. Not surprisingly, the local waters are now over-fished.

I’m not sure how Gaza will be distributed. It sounds like it might get a theatrical release in North America and surely it will be/has been seen in Ireland. Elsewhere in Europe, given the TV funders listed, it should appear on TV and on DVD/VOD. Despite my reservations I would urge anyone to watch the film since the directors do achieve their primary aim of showing us life in contemporary Gaza – life lived by ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances.