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Killing Gaza: New documentary features Life Under Siege

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On August 13, as a five-day ceasefire took hold in Israel’s 51 day war with Gaza, Max Blumenthal and I headed for the hyper-militarized border terminal at Erez crossing. We had no plans to make a documentary at that point. I brought along my camera and shotgun microphone to record interviews that I could transcribe for written articles. It quickly became clear to us that the harrowing testimony we were gathering in the miles and miles of rubble that spanned Gaza’s shattered border regions should be the basis for a documentary. So I returned to Gaza again and again over the course of the next two years, following up with the people I met during the war and encountering new people from all walks of life who told the story of life under siege and the systematic destruction of their society. Their voices comprise the narrative basis of our documentary feature, Killing Gaza.

This week, the Great March of Return will culminate on Nakba Day, the date marking the Palestinian observance of their systematic and ongoing ethnic cleansing by Israel. To crush the largely unarmed protests that have sent young men in waves towards the militarized walls that pen them into a giant cage, the Israeli military has waged its most violent and deadly campaign since the 51-day war. It was this demonstration of mass resistance that inspired the release of our documentary, Killing Gaza. You can view it here.

Killing Gaza from Dan Cohen on Vimeo.

Having spent extensive time in Gaza and familiarized myself with the warmth and creativity of its residents, I came to see it as the most misunderstood place on the planet. The warped Western picture of Gaza is the clear result of an intentional campaign by the Israeli government and a pliable media to demonize its two million inhabitants. With Killing Gaza, we aimed to challenge the view of the besieged coastal enclave as a nest of terror, or a cauldron of violent rage — a view put on display in the Vice News series on the 2014 war, “Rockets and Revenge.”

Killing Gaza does not follow the trajectory of one character. Rather, we sought to create a portrait of a society being crushed and dismembered from all sides. One of the most compelling people you will meet in the film is Malak Mattar, a teenage girl who was consumed with crippling depression and fear until took hold of a paintbrush in the middle of the war and put it to a canvas. “Art is like a language which all the world can understand,” Mattar explained to me. “By my art, I can resist with my own materials, resist with my own paintings.”

Since then, Mattar has blossomed into one of Gaza’s brightest artistic talents whose has been displayed in galleries around the world. She is now studying in Istanbul, with a future ahead of her but a deep sorrow and longing for her family back in Gaza. Mattar’s cultural resistance is every bit as important as the kind that Gaza’s armed factions are known for — and which we also surveyed in our film.

Waseem Shamaly stands over his brother Salem Shamaly’s grave in the Shujaiya district, east of Gaza City.

Through my extended visits to Gaza, I was able to follow the development of Waseem Shamaly as he grappled with the loss of his older brother, Salem Shamaly, one of the most widely publicized casualties of the 2014 war. Salem Shamaly was killed by an Israeli sniper as he wandered through the rubble of the Shujaiya neighborhood searching for a wounded family members trapped in a destroyed home. Learning of his older brother’s killing through a news broadcast left Waseem with deep psychological scars. “Whatever we wished for, he would buy it. There was nothing he wouldn’t buy for us,” Waseem said, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Now he is gone. There is nobody to take us out and buy us treats.”

One year later, I visited the Shamaly family again. Waseem had difficulty concentrating and hearing. The trauma of Salem’s grisly murder had permanently scarred his psyche. He brought to me to the makeshift graveyard where Salem was buried. There, sitting atop his brother’s grave, Waseem told me he hoped to someday join the main faction of Gaza’s armed resistance, the al-Qassam brigades. “I want to become a fighter to avenge Salem’s murder,” he said. “I want to take revenge on the occupation that shot him. I want to join for Salem, for my brother, and for the Palestinian people.”

His testimony was all too common. I had met several teenage boys, who had lost siblings, cousins and parents, and saw taking up arms as the only way to avenge their family members’ deaths.

Hosni Ibrahim crouches on the beach on a winter day in Shati refugee camp.

While some choose the path of armed resistance, others, like Hosni Ibrahim, held on to life by a thread. I met Ibrahim amid a cold and windy winter storm in the Shati (Beach) refugee camp. Foreigners in the streets of Gaza are a rare sight, and Ibrahim took the opportunity to ask if I could help him. Responsible for a family of five, Ibrahim couldn’t find employment for three years. He was crushed by the siege, personally and financially. I told him there was little I could do short of documenting his plight. He agreed and we met again the following evening in his tiny home deep inside the winding alleys of the refugee camp.

Penniless and sapped of hope, Ibrahim was once again facing eviction while his wife sought out a divorce. “I am unable to provide for my children’s most basic needs. What should I do? Steal?” he asked me. “That’s not my way.” Hopelessness had pushed Ibrahim to the brink, he confessed. “To be honest, I have tried to poison myself because of this situation.” It was only the thought of his children fatherless that prevented Ibrahim from attempting suicide again.

Killing Gaza is not easy to watch. I imagine many viewers will have to take breaks between scenes that come like a succession of punches to the gut. Our vision was inspired by the Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, which presented a bracing portrait of the Nazi death camps ten years after their liberation, and Suite Habana, which intimately depicted Cuban society after five decades under US blockade. We hope that, like these films, Killing Gaza will stand as a lasting testament to a people struggling to wriggle out from under the boot of a ruthless empire by resisting their occupation through every means available.

Dan Cohen

Dan Cohen is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Palestine. He tweets at @dancohen3000.

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