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.
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.
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.
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.