Since the Great March of Return began on Land Day, March 30 last year, initiated by independent activists in Gaza, 260 Palestinians have been killed, and at least 10,000 injured, many maimed for life.
Last Saturday, four others were shot and killed.
Why do these Gazans keep coming back to the border that separates their tiny strip of land from what was once their ancestral homeland? And as we watch endearingly quaint images of protesters wielding slingshots, with the sombre abandon and amused majesty of ancient warriors, we ask why it is that, in a killing field where imminent death is writ large, they mock the lethal power of their enemy. And who is out there these days to articulate the depth of that sensibility?
We read the dispatches of news reporters and these solicit from us dispersed, shallow attention. We gaze at arresting pictures shot by photojournalists and we find even these a mere paraphrase. Only in cinematic art, in this case the film documentary, that the spirit of Gaza appears to be genuinely resurrected.
And so many astute documentarians from the West have descended on Gaza in recent years, beginning with James Langley, who directed the touching Gaza Strip (2002), about the travails of a 13-year-old grade school dropout eking out a living in that impoverished strip of land. Their films, in essence, deal with the lyrical abstraction of how a people, when denied a voice, resort to making stones speak for them.
Langley’s effort was soon followed by the sombre Death in Gaza (2004) whose first scenes open in the West Bank but then it moves on to Gaza, where the crew spent their time shooting footage in a refugee camp — that is till, the producer-director, James Miller, while filming, was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.
The death was later woven into and made a part of the film narrative. Since then, there has been a torrent of prize-winning documentaries shot by truly talented documentarians, each with his unique vision of how two million people, under siege by land, sea and air, whose suffering is beyond all rational understanding, can still find the time and the will to dance, sing love and socialise.
Incredibly vibrant film
The most recent is called simply Gaza, a rich cinematic portrait full of poignant detail, including the scene of a teenage girl fetchingly playing her cello on a hill overlooking the timeless Mediterranean.
The film, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, a venue that usually attracts 50,000 attendees each year, got raves across the board.
The Financial Times reviewer, for example, was particularly struck by the scene with the young cellist. “She sits there like a lamenting angel,” he wrote, “sounding her earthy harp ... [where an apartment block] has been impaled by a keeled-over minaret, as if religion itself has been brought tumbling”.
The co-director, Andrew McConnel, a photojournalist and professional documentary filmmaker who grew up in Ireland, told reporters: “The heart of this film is about what it’s like to live in this extraordinary strip of land. Gaza is incredibly vibrant, colourful and boisterous. It’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been to … For us the focus of the film was to capture the essence of the everyday lives as lived in this much misunderstood, complex and beautiful place”.
Pain and resilience
Samoni Road, which premiered in Paris in February and had won the best documentary award at the Foreign Press Film Awards there, is directed by Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona, who spent nine long years trying to piece together what happened during Israel’s 2009 ground offensive, when a farming community in the north of Gaza was razed to the ground by the special forces, who killed 29 civilians, mostly huddled together in one house.
The film, said Savona, was a look at the “pain and resilience of these people”.
Two weeks ago, at Spain’s National Goya Awards, another film, also called Gaza, which won for best short, depicts the destruction heaped on the Strip during the dreadful 2014 war.
The director, Julio Perez del Campo, dedicated it to “those suffering under Zionist terrorism”, bluntly called for resistance against “Zionist apartheid” and for “adherence to the international boycott of Israel”. Oh, yes, in Spain you can tell it like it is. In the US, not so much.
On June 20, more than 300 people filled the Downtown Independent movie theatre in Los Angeles for the premiere screening of Gaza Fights for Freedom, a documentary showing the human ebb and flow of the Great March of Return.
Then there is — leaving it to the last for the horrors it depicts — Killing Gaza, again about that dreadful 2014 war, a chilling portrait of brazen war crimes committed by Israel’s military there, complete with direct testimony from survivors.
All these films are showing in, or shown and already withdrawn from, art house movie theatres across the United States.
To those who matter, Gaza matters, for the eloquent statement its people are making is spoken in a universal language we all comprehend.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.