This week, the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival opens in Washington, DC. One of the featured pieces is a unique production called Condom Lead, directed by identical twin brothers from Gaza, Mohammed and Ahmed Abu Nasser – better known as Arab and Tarzan.
Reading the news, memories came flooding back. While I was living in Gaza during the winter and spring of 2011, I shot a series of video vignettes with local residents who embodied, for me, the spirit of creative, non-violent resistance – “faces” of Gaza the world normally never sees. Many of these kindred spirits to whom I was drawn were artists. And two of them were Arab and Tarzan. (Look at their pictures and you’ll immediately think you know why. Watch this interview, however, and you’ll learn the true inspiration behind the names.)
Three impressions come to mind when I recall the days I spent with them in Gaza: 1) How much I felt like their little sister even though I was so much older. They constantly teased me, laughing hysterically when I repeated Arabic words they taught me, only to find out that they were “bad.” 2) Awe. They are truly “renaissance” men, equally good at playing the guitar, making movies and painting (one of Arab’s oils hangs on my bedroom wall). And 3) A conviction that if they could just get exposure outside of Gaza, I’d say I “knew them when” someday. And I was right.
Late last year, I caught up with Arab via Skype in their current home in Amman, Jordan, and chatted about what has happened since those days when we goofed around in Gaza. How did they arrive at today, when they are getting the attention they so richly deserve? (In 2013, Condom Lead became the first film from Gazan Palestinians to be accepted into the Cannes Film Festival.) My first question was why they had left Gaza.
“We never had any thoughts about leaving Gaza and living abroad,” he said sadly. “The thought of returning is always there. We miss our family and friends, and the Gaza that we consider to be our heaven. But the harassment by the government became too much.”
Filmmaking is not common in Gaza (in fact, there is no formal film school, or cinemas for that matter). Combine that with the twins’ decidedly bohemian looks and the provocative nature of much of their work, and you have a mix that does not fit well with the current Islamic government.
“We were always being questioned by the ministries of internal and cultural affairs,” explained Arab, adding that their films were banned as well. “They’d say, ‘You don’t look Muslim whatsoever; why do you have such hair? Why do you have a long beard? Are you trying to mock the prophet? You have to switch your outfits to ones that are more appropriate and respectable.’ These are the questions they would repeat to us every time we were arrested on the street or in our home.”
The harassment escalated when their project “Gaza Wood” (a series of mock- Hollywood posters for imaginary feature films named after real Israeli military offensives on Gaza) took off and they criticized the repressive internal environment in their interviews with a variety of media.
“As time went by,” he said, “the warnings developed into death threats from particular groups in Gaza. We were not scared, but we could not allow our mother, father and the rest of the family to be tormented. Our father also was worried that our lives were in danger. It seemed best to leave.”
Arab and Tarzan traveled to Amman, where one of their short films was playing, and were given temporary residency with the help of Rashid Abd El-Hamid, who they later cast as the starring character in Condom Lead – the first production by their company, Made in Palestine. The short film was inspired by an idea first voiced by friend and mentor Khalil Al-Mzen in Gaza, but adapted by the brothers. I don’t want to give way the plot for those who have not yet had the pleasure of viewing it, but suffice to say that the topic – the effect of the constant air strikes and artillery barrages of “Operation Cast Lead” on a couple’s sex life – further exacerbated the condemnations from conservative religious sensibilities, both inside the Strip and out (and not just from the government).
“It was shot in one day, using low-budget equipment, and was very challenging,” recalled Arab. “It was the first time for most of the actors, and one was a little kid. Because it does not have dialogue, facial expressions were everything, and in some of the scenes, the camera focused on one actor for more than a minute. The cameraman was new to us too. But it turned out amazing, and it has shown in so many places.”
Cannes was the highlight, and the two were able to travel to France to revel in the honor in person. However, the government of Jordan told them upon their return that they would have to return to Gaza when their visa expired, and they have been too afraid to leave since, fearing they would not be allowed to re-enter.
Instead, Arab and Tarzan have been focusing their attention on the production of two feature-length films. Arab is most excited about Casting, which will once again star El-Hamid. True to form, it is sure to anger “conservative types” with its exploration of the contradictions between extreme religious teachings and real life.
“It is based,” he said, “on our own, personal stories. What we want more than anything is to make more and more films in freedom, away from oppression. We want to convey the true image of Gaza and its good people, which we madly love.”