“There are people living with so much misery [in Gaza], they no longer even realise the extent of their suffering.” So says Ahmed, a 40-something taxi driver describing what he witnesses every day on the streets of Gaza, as the camera films people in an impoverished market.
To the outsider watching Gaza, a profoundly powerful and poignant documentary on the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians trapped in this tiny sliver of land, his words seem absolutely – and unbearably – true. Yet they also show a prodigious amount of dignity, determination and, somehow, hope.
What started as a project for film director Andrew McConnell about surfers in Gaza back in 2010 evolved into a documentary about people in Gaza living by the sea when he met fellow director Garry Keane. Then, following the destructive Israeli military assault on the enclave in 2014, which McConnell also documented, the project morphed again.
“We got some development money from the Irish Film Board [now Screen Ireland] and went back together in 2015,” McConnell explained. “We found additional characters and developed it more, thinking: why confine ourselves to people living by the sea, let’s make the quintessential movie about Gaza.”
And that is certainly what it is: a painful, cinematically beautiful and compelling collage of life for a dozen or so Palestinian individuals. Together, their stories give insights into the collective experiences of another two million souls, forced to endure an entirely man-made humanitarian disaster.
In the lives of each character there is laughter and love shared with friends and family members – glimpses of everyday life that the audience will relate to – but set against a backdrop of devastation; a destroyed infrastructure; extreme poverty and destitution; as well as the beautiful sea. These intimate, touching moments are always eclipsed by the corrosive, destructive impact of military attacks and more than 12 years of a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.
In one scene a mother with three beautiful daughters sits on the living room sofa with the youngest, Karma, sharing stories and memories as they flick through old family photos, which show a Gaza that was once much more liberal, freer and happier.
The camera then shows the mum driving along the coast road, contemplative, as we listen to her thoughts: “Whatever difficulties we had back then, I never imagined it would be as bad as it is today. Every night when Karma and my other daughters are asleep, I sit by their bedside and stroke their hair. I wonder if it was fair of me to give birth to them here. How could I let my children live through three wars?”
The film documents tensely some of the most testing times that the enclave has faced in recent years, from the 2014 military pounding unleashed by Israel over the course of 50 days, to the violent and often lethal Israeli response to protestors participating in the ongoing Great March of Return along the perimeter fence between Gaza and Israel.
Ibrahim is a paramedic at the front line of these protests, treating hundreds of injured civilians. His is a life of sacrifice and care for his people as they assert their legitimate rights.
“Young people are sacrificing everything to obtain their freedom,” he says. “As long as there’s occupation, they will not stop. And while they do it, it’s our duty to care for them.”
He notes the enormous toll that Israel is forcing Palestinian society to pay, in Gaza particularly, as it cripples a generation of young men with its “shoot to maim” policy.
“They end up losing their limbs. Strong men who are needed by society… have now become a burden to society.”
As he speaks, the camera shows us a protestor balancing on crutches as he attempts to swing a slingshot towards Israeli soldiers behind a heavily fortified wall. The image of desperate and futile determination speaks volumes.
“Young men are ruined,” Ibrahim continues, “and as a result, Palestinian society is being destroyed and pulled apart.”
Karma, an astute and beautiful young girl who finds limited solace in her cello and the sea, comments that people in the West “only see what they want to see.”
McConnell agrees. “There is something really inherently flawed with getting your information from mainstream media,” he asserts. “It really isn’t even scratching the surface any more, and it’s just getting worse. I started off in a daily newspaper and I feel ever since that moment I’ve been trying to move away from it to undo the damage it did to me as a storyteller. I’m trying to tell a story properly with depth and nuance and it’s got me to this point where I feel [documentary film-making] is the best way a story can be told.”
Gaza conveys the vulnerable isolation felt by the people of Gaza. Its continued isolation depends completely on the complicity of Western powers, but McConnell acknowledges that Palestinians in Gaza also feel let down by the millions of Palestinians also living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and inside Israel.
“There’s a sense that they’re the ones really carrying the torch in terms of resistance; that the resistance is coming for the most part from Gaza, and the majority in the West Bank have in some way given up that role. They feel they’re the ones shouldering the heaviest part of that.”
While a film of this nature is bound to be intense and emotionally demanding, much of the tenderness and the playful interactions between many of characters in it are really beautiful, touching and affirming to witness. And there is one scene that has managed to get audiences everywhere laughing, McConnell says, though he adds that he was in two minds about including it.
One of the main characters is a young boy named Ahmed, whom we first meet, aged 14, longing to be a fisherman, following in the footsteps of many of the men in his family. His whole life revolves around the sea.
At one point we also meet his father, who matter-of-factly says that he has 40 children from three wives. He considered a fourth but says there was no space for another wife or more kids. He says that he has 20 – or is it 22? – kids currently attending school, then produces a paper and, like a roll call, is only then able to list all of them.
“All over the world that scene has got a huge laugh because it is so incongruous,” McConnell says. “I was mindful not to create stereotypes that every man in Gaza has three to four wives and dozens of children. But we found him through little Ahmed and he just happened to have this father and all these brothers and sisters, and step brothers and sisters, and so it was part of his story and important enough to keep it in.”
Gaza will be part of the revived London Palestine Film Festival, which runs 15-30 November. It is this exposure that McConnell and Keane feel is critical in bringing awareness and understanding to audiences in the West if anything meaningful is to change. The pair were at screenings in New York City and Harvard earlier this month and McConnell says the response and engagement were fantastic, providing “a really healthy debate”.
An appetite is there from audiences, McConnell points out, though they have been unable to get the major distributors to take it on.
“We’ve struggled get it shown in the US, ever since its premier at Sundance. For whatever reason, all of the networks have turned us down – Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO and so on. Netflix, for example, told us: ‘We don’t think this film would have an audience’, but we found that every screening we’ve been to has been full, and there’s been huge interest.”
McConnell says that they will use grassroots networks in the meantime to build that exposure across America, as that is where its message particularly needs to be heard.
“That’s what we’re really energised to do right now. We plan many more screenings in the US next year. We feel the US is the most important country to screen this; it’s the country where this needs to be seen the most.” He adds that many of those lending their support to getting it seen are American Jews.
Nevertheless, the most prized screening is just over a week away, in Gaza, on 20 November. McConnell and Keane are hoping that they can be part of it, but are still awaiting permits to be processed.
“The old cinema in Gaza is being renovated for it. It’s derelict at the moment but they’re renovating it and plan to have 700 seats inside and 700 outside, so it should be seen by about 1,500 people possibly. That would be really special for us if we could be there for that.”
More than anything, he concludes, it would be wonderful to reconnect with everyone and see their response after the journey they’ve been on with the film. “Their reactions would be as important as anyone’s, so I can’t overstate how extraordinary it would be to sit and watch it together.”