Culture

On finding a tapestry of characters in Gaza, and at the Academy Awards

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It’s been almost four years since I was a translator working with a hardworking and talented duo of Irish filmmakers and numerous Palestinian translators, fixers and editors from Gaza who put together a multi-narrative documentary. Indeed, “Gaza,” as the film is aptly titled, is a powerful piece that needs and deserves the attention it can get.

The documentary was nominated for a 2020 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. The film was inspired by a Palestinian surf club in the besieged coastal strip. Irish photographer Andrew McConnell, a surfing enthusiast himself, heard about the surfers and collaborated with fellow Irish producer Garry Keane. The result is an alternative narrative to the one-dimensional script about Gaza covered by mainstream media.

It has always been hard for me to express how I should review or describe Gaza, as it is the place I was born and lived in for 24 years before moving to the U.S. Gaza is where I identified as a refugee. My Bedouin grandparents were forced to flee Beer Al Sabaa’, today’s Beersheva, in 1948 during the war around Israel’s establishment. They became displaced in Gaza’s city life full of contradictions and different backgrounds. “Gaza” is a powerful documentary that, to an extent, had made a bit of sense of how I reflect on what was my daily life and my relationships there. 

Watching a scene of a Bedouin woman, Aida Abu Sitta, putting together a fashion show that represents the culture and identifies within the Palestinian community, I remembered when I met her once as she sat in a café and called me over. She wondered about the features in my face and asked if I, too, was also Bedouin, explaining I look like her daughters. This sense of hunger for identity and identification with one another in a small besieged strip of land that has much to give and much more to take from us at the same time.

To this end, the film represents identities, social classes, and different approaches to daily struggles. At the same time it shows when people of any background are under occupation and its collective punishment, aggression, and violence, we are all the same. 

Our dreams have become a desire for human rights and basic needs, yet our hunger for life and freedom grows within darkness. The whole population, all together, strives to be resilient under tremendous pressures of siege. 

I watched the documentary for the first time in New York City in October. As it screened I looked around to see the audience reaction. Were they outraged, or saddened or horrified? Would they be moved by these scenes to take action in solidarity with the Palestinians? 

What I found myself responding the most to was the end of the film. The beach, the laughs, the people stirred heartache. I was mesmerized trying to identify myself and my life there through the people’s stories and the settings. My own conflict with wanting to be there, and knowing that I cannot, surfaced.

Andrew McConell (L), Walaa Ghussein (C), and Garry Keane (R) at a New York City screening of "Gaza," October 27, 2019. (Photo: Facebook/The Irish Screen America)
Andrew McConell (L), Walaa Ghussein (C), and Garry Keane (R) at a New York City screening of “Gaza,” October 27, 2019. (Photo: Facebook/The Irish Screen America)

I sat down to interview Keane and McConnell in late October at a cafe in Boston after we wrapped a round table discussion about the film at Harvard’s Faculty Club. I was invited to speak alongside the filmmakers as a representative of the Gaza crew. Someone from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was present at the event, as were Harvard professors. Questions have been edited for clarity.  

Walaa Ghussein: Gaza is a place of many misconceptions. What are some of the differences between your impression before going in, and what you found after arriving? 

Andrew McConnell: My impression before was a lot of destruction and poverty, a war-torn country where people are struggling with humanitarian crises. After my visit, I saw a place that I didn’t expect, a colorful place, a place that felt alive. How easy it was to move around and to make friends and how welcoming people were. You just get overwhelmed by the hospitality and how rich a small little place like Gaza is in terms of running of a society within the struggle, the economic situation and the humanitarian crisis and how they deal with that. The resourcefulness of the people is really striking, and how they manage to make this whole thing work, to an extent, and how they survive and make the best of their lives under very difficult circumstances.

Garry Keane: I went there in 2015 so it was after the war and there was a huge amount of devastation and the whole infrastructure had been torn apart so it was fascinating for me to see two million people pick themselves up from such an extraordinary event like that 50 days and start getting on with life again and try and get through this together and the resilience and resourcefulness of the people was so refreshing to me and it just gave me a huge, extra motivation to tell with Andrew the story of Gazan people and try and bring that to the world and say look and don’t forget the two million people here, these are the people that are suffering, there’s a collective punishment going on here.

Stylistically the documentary follows people in Gaza narrating their own experiences. How did you decide to use this mode of storytelling?

AM: I think that idea was partly born out of the conversations Garry and I had at the very beginning on how would we approach this from a storytelling point of view and we both agreed that the best way to tell people about Gaza is to let the people of Gaza tell the story for themselves because we rarely see that, we see political commentators, we see politicians talk all the time in the news and what you rarely see is just an ordinary Palestinian in Gaza giving their thoughts on their own situation. Everyone in Gaza has a story to tell, we could’ve made four documentaries but we tried to do our best with just one.

GK: One of the things that became very apparent once we kind of realized that we’re going to tell a broader story was that we were going to need a huge tapestry of characters in order to make this work because one or two or three characters is not going to portray a whole society so we had to go looking for the young, the old, the men, the women, the different classes and structures and we also had to find the odds in order to see as much of the strip as we could, this is why we went to search for taxi drivers who could bring us around and show us we could use that as a vehicle to physically see the strip, so what started up as a huge challenge ended up as a huge strength.

Did you sense any contradictions or changes in individuals over time as you followed them? Being happy, but also frustrated?  

GK: There are contradictions in every society, what makes Gaza different is the fact that they are having to create a society that functions within an open prison, within a place that is restricted in every way, from movement to services, every element of their lives is restricted and controlled and what’s fascinating is how people from all walks and all those different backgrounds how they all individually and collectively work together to try and figure a way to function as families as businesses as a society within that huge impending disaster at any point. It’s not so much about the contradictions but the ability and resilience of the people there to cope with the worst possible scenario that any civilization could want to cope with so what surprised me was how the people could get up in the morning and put a smile on their face and practice a normal daily life routine in a not normal situation.

You’ve visited Gaza before setting out to make this film. What would you say are some changes that you’ve sensed while working throughout the different periods? 

AM: In 2010 when I first went there, I stayed with a family in Beit-Hanoun, and by last year, most of the family members of mother and father and six boys and five girls are in Chicago while those who didn’t make it are stuck in Gaza while and they live a sort of a lonely house now compared to what it was and there’s quite a few families and people I know are in exile now and that is sad to see.

Since 2014 the situation has deteriorated greatly. Everyone we know has left after 2014. Things were bad before but since 2014 the economy has suffered so much and has reduced to the point where no one can really survive anymore, whatever economy there was, has been decimated.

The sense of hopelessness since the war has deepened. Nobody has any illusions that the situation is going to improve and so it’s a sense of desperation and hopelessness that prevails everywhere and on everyone. It’s a place where things don’t remain the same and there’s a depression.

GK: When you see a systematic fracturing of an entire society what you get is this incredible sad situation and we’ve seen this and we’ve witnessed this even recently now it’s on some screenings where for the first time probably people who have left Gaza are starting to see the film and what’s utterly sad about that is the comments that we hearing. A woman who has just left Gaza three months ago and watched the film said she was torn by absolutely wanting to be back there but knowing she couldn’t live there anymore and that is the worst possible thing you can do to a society of people to cut them off from their sense of home, homeland, their family and friends and the rest of society around.  

While you were wrapping up filming the largest consistent Palestinian protests were launched with the Great March of Return. How did that impact the sequence of the documentary? 

AM: When you’re filming violence like that there isn’t any sort of narrative, I’m just trained trying to hold the camera still and not to get shot and trying to avoid getting injured and trying to calculate the risks involved and document it as best as I can. It’s sort of getting up every day and knowing that you’re going into a dangerous situation but just try and stay cool, just document because this is historically a very important time in Gaza’s history and if we’re telling the story of Gaza then we have to be there at that point.

One of the few advantages of funding taking so long is that we were still not finished in 2018 and so we were able to time our last trip to coincide with these protests, it’s crucial in telling an up to date story on what’s happening because they have taken over the whole day to day of the people in many ways because they were so huge and they were an expression of the frustration that exists and the fact that we got that material that implements the narrative structure of the film.

Have you been able to see the reaction from audiences around the world, I especially wonder what was the reception of the film in the U.S?  

AM: I think people are surprised by this film because it’s not something they’re familiar with when they think of Gaza, and when they see you open the film with a bunch of young lads diving into the water enjoying themselves and the sea, just doing what any young boys would do anywhere in the world given the opportunity and it’s refreshing but let’s not pretend that conflict doesn’t exist and that there isn’t war, and what this threat of war just hanging over people all the time does and if you film there over a period of time you’re going to experience war and we did and it was important that that also was shown because even though it’s vibrant and colorful, the life the people live in is a unique situation, but under the surface, it’s something darker and so we touch on both and try and give a sense to the complexity of that.

 GK: We have been asked quite a bit about the structure of the film and screenings – the structure is based on breaking up stereotypes of Gaza that are perpetuated by the conflict. With the blockade and huge control of the narrative that comes out of Gaza, it suits people to perpetuate one side of that narrative and what gets lost in that narrative and in conflict zones, in general, is the people; people become dehumanized, people become faceless, people become invisible. Thus, we introduce the context by which people try and survive the constant fear of bombardments, the constant struggle to try and find some way to protest against the wrongs that are being perpetuated there.

Switching gears, I imagine there are challenges in getting the film to audiences. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon have become gateways. Have you been able to secure online distribution or make the film accessible to international audiences? 

GK: We’ve had a huge Launchpad to Sundance premiere, we had six screenings back to back and showed to over 2500 people so we got a little bit load into a full sense of American exposure through that because ever since that it’s been very difficult to get the film screened in America per se. I don’t think we were surprised by that between the Trump administration and the administration in Israel have gone so far to the right and the narrative that’s been coming out, we weren’t really surprised that “Gaza” wasn’t going to be high on anyone’s agenda.

There was a huge push back from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime and all the big platforms who’ve all rejected the film and the only feedback we’ve gotten is that they don’t believe that it has enough of an appeal for people to watch in a worldwide capacity which we don’t agree with at all. From our traveling around the world we’ve been to over 50 film festivals now and for the most part, we’ve had packed cinemas and there’s been a real hunger from people to see it and the reactions have been phenomenal in terms of people who have watched it. We are absolutely convinced that there is a huge appetite to see the real Gaza so far as we can show it in the film so it’s a bit disappointing, but we’re not going to stop trying and if the big platforms won’t take it on board then we’re just going to work from the bottom through communities, universities, schools and anyone who really feels that they have an audience, we’re more than happy to try and open it up as much as we possibly can to these people.

 Are you excited to have the film screened in Gaza this November? And how do you feel about the people in Gaza watching their own stories represented through your work? 

AM: It’s a huge milestone for the film, we’ve traveled around the world this year ever since the premiere at Sundance and all the while the characters and the people of Gaza haven’t been able to see it and that’s difficult. The people of Gaza don’t want to watch it on their laptops, they would rather see it in the cinema the way it’s supposed to be seen and finally that’s going to happen at The Red Carpet Film Festival and it’s going to be the most exciting screening for us. 

GK: It’s a phenomenal thing that we look forward to whether we can get access or not. We’re absolutely thrilled that we launched the appeal and we managed to raise enough money for them to go ahead and launch the festival this, it’s just so exciting and I hope we can be there in terms of saying “we hope you like it and thanks for letting us to go on this journey with you.”

GAZA is now available on video on demand across major platforms in the UK and Ireland. The film can now be accessed on iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon, Google Play and Microsoft Store and Curzon Home Cinema.