Usama’s face is haunting. He is only 27, yet the palpable anguish evident on his gentle demeanor by far surpasses his years. He only becomes alive when playing football, as a member of the Beach Camp Club. Otherwise, outside the pitch, his life speaks of undying hope and lingering despair.
Housing Ministry officials in Gaza told him that his house will be rebuilt once the second Kuwaiti donation arrives. He needed to rebuild in order for his family to be spared the life of destitution. He wanted his son to be born in a home of his own.
When that promise didn’t materialise, he was told that the house will be rebuilt from a pledged German or a Saudi donation. But then they asked him to “follow up with the UN” instead, whatever that meant.
Some 20,000 homes in Gaza were destroyed or severely damaged in the last Israeli war in 2014. Usama and his entire family, and tens of thousands more instantly became homeless. Whenever government clerics conveyed the bad news, Usama kept nodding and didn’t argue. His face – handsome, dark, bearded and embellished with an unmistakable shyness was also burdened with fear. He looked as if trapped in a surreal existence from which there was no escape.
The life of Usama Abu Qirshein was the subject of a Dutch documentary called “Team Gaza” which was aired on Dutch television and will, starting next year, be promoted at international film festivals. An interactive online version of the documentary is now available. It reveals a reality in Gaza that, despite the various competing narratives about the impoverished besieged Gaza Strip, has remained largely unexplored.
In the last scene in ‘Usama’s Chapter’, the young man sits atop the rubble of his home, head bowed, but not yet broken. He calls government officials to enquire if his house will ever be rebuilt, but receives no answer.
But this is not entirely a story of war and siege, or one of Usama alone. It is the story of Gaza, and depicts a reality of its past and present – and its uncertain future.
The filmmakers, Laurens Samsom and Frederick Mansell, come from journalism and television backgrounds, with Samson working as a correspondent for Dutch newspapers in Palestine and Israel, and Mansell working for Dutch public television.
The two connected around the idea of making a documentary on Gaza, but one that is rather different from the typical and perhaps even stereotypical media depiction of the Strip.
“Early in 2012 I found this football team in Gaza, Al Shatea (Beach Camp) and instantly I knew this was the place where we could tell a story that is so hard to get across,” Samsom told me.
The story he wanted to tell was not the story of war, but that of ‘normal life’ in Gaza: “The story of regular dreams and ambitions in this closed piece of land, where the news is usually silent when the bombs don’t fall.”
One of the erroneous assumptions that many have of Gaza – thanks to Israel’s official hasbara, but also to an over-romanticized view of Palestine – is that Gaza is a place of war and only war. In that view, the tiny strip of land seems to only matter when it is bombed, or when it fights back.
In between the bouts of violence, the extremely crowded enclave of 1.8 million people (of whom 1.3 million are refugees) falls into some kind of a twilight zone, only deserving of an occasional headline covering a visit by a UN official, a homemade rocket falling inside Israel, followed by a thousand bombs dropped on Gaza.
But “Team Gaza” depicts a different reality, that of life abuzz, of football competitions, of girls fighting for a place in society, of men standing tall, others cowering in fear, seeking an escape, and still others frantically holding onto a shred of hope and dignity.
While the documentary does not tell the whole story of Gaza – one that is vast, rooted in history and ever compounded – it points to the start of a proper narrative of how the story ought to be told. After spending time in Gaza and a number of weeks interviewing all members of the Beach Camp football team, the filmmakers settled to tell the fascinating stories of five players and one female journalist, Samah.
“We are not interested in our opinion,” said Samsom, so we conducted “no interviews, no voice-overs (except for the introduction). We just wanted to show the lives of these young people, each with an individual dream that everyone can relate to.”
At a first glance, the stories seem segmented, a technique purposefully done, for they constantly intersect in a most captivating way on the football field.
Ahmed, the clear-headed goalkeeper, is a fighter with the Gaza Resistance; Imad, the mid-fielder, is a barber who is madly in love but forced by poverty to get married in his family home; Nehru, wants to leave and pursue a professional football career abroad; Samah, a strong woman with a surprisingly careless sense of humor is standing her ground in a male-dominated world; Zead, the captain of the team, is a testament to true leadership and takes his job seriously; and, of course, the playermaker, Usama, who simply wants to rebuild his family home.
These Gazans have more in common than their refugee status, their war-torn city, their fears and hopes. They also have their love for football, perhaps not as an end in itself, but as an escape from a harsh reality which lingers outside the triangularly-shaped green field, where, to their adoring, die-hard fans, they are stars, who bring honor and indescribable joy.
And when the game is over, they all return to their own lives, some training for the next war, or the next game, while others struggle to make living. As for Samah, she never ceases to seek meaning, defining herself against traditions that rendered her lesser and unworthy. And judging by her energy, she remains defiant and relentless to the very end.
The real achievement of “Team Gaza” is its ability to divert the story from the way it is constantly streamed through the media, where the humanity of Gaza, in fact, that of all of Palestine, is a subject of debate dominated largely by well-prepared Israeli military spokespersons.
Sure, in some way Israel remains an essential part of the story, for the characters are refugees, and the Israeli wars and its siege have undeniably affected many aspects of their lives. But “Team Gaza” has demonstrated that Gazans are not hapless victims, are not docile characters in a narrative hijacked by well-trained government officials who never tire of repeating the same talking points.
Gaza is alive. It has always been, and will always be. Its ability to persist despite tremendous hardship is an outcome of a unique, collective experience that predates the Israeli decade-long siege, and is rooted in a history of courage and defiance.
True, many have been pushed to the brink and wish to escape; but others remain, living, loving, rebuilding and playing football.
Watch the film in English here.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.