Rapping, surfing and coping in Gaza

BEIRUT: Karma will remind Western middle class audiences of any number of young women they’ve met. Her mother tells the camera she herself was born in the capital, that her grandfather had studied law overseas. Later she moved to the coast with her husband, where she had three daughters.

She says her adoptive hometown used to be a liberal and open-minded place but it’s grown more conservative as political, economic and social conditions deteriorated. It’s become rare to see a young woman not wearing hijab, though neither she nor her daughters cover their hair.

The youngest, Karma is shown modeling a local designer’s contemporary styles inspired by traditional textile embroidery. She hopes to get a university scholarship, Karma says, so she can go abroad to study politics and international law. She also studies cello.

“Some things,” she remarks, “can’t be expressed in words.” For their part, the filmmakers know that footage of a pretty young woman playing an instrument can express plenty and they take the opportunity to film her rehearsing.

Karma and her mom are among the diverse voices Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell have drawn together into their prize-winning documentary “Gaza.” The film debuted at Sundance in January and will close Beirut’s Ecrans du Reel film festival Sunday evening.

Keane and McConnell shot “Gaza” during the March of Return demonstrations.

Launched in March 2018, these protests saw tens of thousands of Palestinians walk to the Strip’s northern border fence with Israel, demanding an end to the yearslong blockade that’s reduced much of the population to desperation.

Though the demonstrations were peaceful, the Israeli military responded with its usual violence, sending a stream of broken Palestinian youth to Gaza’s underprovisioned hospitals.

Aware that evening news images of burning tires and bleeding protesters was the only sense most audiences have of Gaza -- Karma expresses irritation that outsiders aware of Gaza’s yearlong state of siege have nothing to offer but sympathy -- the Irish filmmakers set out to make a film that reflects the multiplicity of Gazans’ experience and holds audiences.

Accomplishing the latter these days is as challenging as the former. There’s no shortage of state oppression and violence in the world nowadays, making many movie-goers more likely to immerse themselves in Marvel’s cinema universe than to search beyond the TV news footage.

McConnell and Keane’s film is about as strong as a doc of its kind can be. When casting the film they found characters who reflect disparate cultural realities (though, as foreigners, they make no claim to objectively representing their subjects) as well as those who speak powerfully about them.

Karma and her middle class mom are matched by Ahmad, a little boy from Deir al-Bahr camp, one of 40 children (22 of them sons) that his dad fathered with his three wives. While Karma aspires to attend university, Ahmad’s elementary school teacher recalls that Ahmad’s literacy levels were shockingly low when he came to school, that he could barely hold a pen.

Karma and Ahmad have another counterpoint in a young man who recalls that he was 10 when Gaza was first flattened by Israeli bombs. When the military returned four years later, he was shot in the legs for the first time. Now he devotes himself to hip-hop, and McConnell’s camera shows him in the recording studio, rapping in a wheelchair.

“Without music,” he tells his cab driver, “life would be impossible.”

(A character in the film himself, the cabbie confides that he once volunteered to go to prison for 20 months because he couldn’t afford to pay his debts.)

“When I started playing cello it used to provide an escape,” Karma reflects when the camera returns to her some time later. “Now it’s a burden. It takes me back to a time I don’t want to remember.”

Recording stories of resilience in the face of conditions that audience members would find intolerable is standard fodder for Western docs about Palestine. Keane and McConnell (who tell the story without ever speaking a word themselves) go one better by having their characters reflect upon the Palestinian condition in Gaza.

Among the more cogent observations come from a paramedic who’s forever collecting young men wrecked by tear gas or snipers’ bullets. He tells McConnell’s camera that during Israel’s last war on Gaza, he didn’t see his family for 50 days straight. The unnamed paramedic is introduced when the filmmakers visit a March of Return demonstration. “For years now, these young men have had nothing to live for,” he says in voice-over. “They throw stones that, if they ever hit their targets, will harm no one. The response is always just to shoot.

“Someone,” he resumes, “needs to listen to these young men’s voices.”

Not all Gaza residents are heroically engaged with the conflict, of course. A young fellow named Mohammad says he’d left the Strip but returned. He used to be a photographer, but he stopped because so many of his friends were killed covering Israeli attacks.

“Everybody knows Gaza is in darkness,” he says. “No food. No drinking water. No electricity.”

Nowadays, Mohammad says in voice-over while the camera shows him clutching a surfboard in the back of a boat, his sole concern is freedom. “To survive,” his voice-over continues as he stands atop his board, water skiing from the back of the boat, “you must break the routine.”

“Gaza” will bring down the curtain on Ecrans du Reel Sunday, May 12, at 8 p.m. at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 11, 2019, on page 12.




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