Documentary subjects: Sderot

Like Madeha in Gaza, the Israeli character, Yafa Malka, a middle-aged hairdresser and mother of three, laments that war has forced her town’s youth to leave their birthplace. Characters such as Yafa Malka on the Israeli side appear chosen as much for their personalities as their message—understandable since everyone’s message in Sderot appears to be the same: “Rocket attacks rule lives in Sderot.”

Sderot is in the 10km-15sec Grad rocket range—Israel Defense Force.

Yafa Malka alternates between exuberant and subdued. One scene finds her joking with her clients, then bemoaning the anxiety that has caused her own and others’ heart conditions; she confesses to no longer having the will to take shelter from rocket attacks.[12] [open notes in new window] In another scene, Yafa defends an old Palestinian merchant friend who regularly travels from Hebron in the West Bank to Sderot to sell his wares. Outside her shop, Yafa is seen jauntily playing the mini keyboard her friend is delivering when he is verbally assaulted by a passing Israeli who calls for ‘the terrorists’ to go home. Yafa Malka shouts back that her friend is no terrorist. Her defense of him is calm but insistent, and a little sad. Moments before, her newly uniformed nephew arrived, seeming hesitant to join his aunt and her Palestinian friend. “Of course,” he has replied to the camera crew, he has chosen to be in a combatant unit for his military service. Yafa Malka expresses her hope that this young soldier will return unharmed and that her Palestinian friend will find peace (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/12_18_2008_sderot_a-terrorist-merchant).

Likeable, too, but more subdued than Yafa Malka, is the young Russian émigré, Andre Avhalikov. Age18½, Andre is an aspiring boxer and already a local champion although still in high school. He goes regularly to the gym to work with his trainer. We later discover, however, that Andre must forego taking part in an important upcoming competition because he has missed too many workouts. He is responsible for his little sister, he explains simply to the camera, and can’t bring her with him to practice because the gym offers no protection from rockets attacks. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/11_10_2008_sderot_andre-and-his-little-sister)

Avi Vaknin, a singer-songwriter in his early 30s, has just released his first single. He rehearses in bomb shelters that have already provided practice space for other up and coming musicians. Sderot, it seems, has a reputation for inspiring compositions with haunting lyrics. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/10_26_2008_sderot_sderot-blues)

Sixteen-year-old high school student, Daniele Mordechai, has ambitions to be an actor. In one episode, we see her playing ‘red alert’ at a playground with her babysitting charges. ‘If a rocket attack warning sounds,’ she instructs the children, ‘run and hide in the big worm.’ The giant worm’s 60-centimeter thick walls are a clever disguise for a bomb shelter (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/

I note that the introductory episode with Sderot grocer, Sason Sara, still manages to be about rocket attacks. Sason Sara’s store lies in disorder for want of attention while (typically) he is occupied writing letters for his customers—in this episode for a neighbor applying for assistance for rocket attack damage (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/6/10_27_2008_sderot_the-grocer-who-wants-to-change-the-world). Sara has hopes to become Sderot’s mayor and the camera finds him when he gets his unhappy election results several episodes later. Betrayed by those he helped and whom he thought supported him, Sason Sara is comforted by his wife and friends.

The wife of Ben Abu Haviv, the father who identifies rocket attack shrapnel with his daughter and the artist who constructed the bomb shelter in the form of an imaginative worm, tells the camera that she wants to leave Sderot because she can no longer stand the tension. But stalwart Ben Abu Haviv declares his intention to stay[13]: It seems that those who can are leaving; those who remain in Sderot are either idealists or without the mean to choose. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/

A bombshelter shaped like a work in a children's playground.

Born in Morocco, Simi Zubib, age 65, likely has no choice about staying in Sderot but appears happy nonetheless. Though she immigrated to Israel at age 10, she explains that she is illiterate; her role has always been in the kitchen. A mother of ten, Simi is religious. Her two weekly escapes from the kitchen are a trip to the market to buy clothes for the family, or to buy food. In one episode, she is making a big holiday meal for her family. However, she explains, her daughter from Tel Aviv won’t be coming because she is too afraid of the rocket attacks. Indeed, we see that there is no place to hide in the Zubib family home when a Red Alert does occur in the midst of a filming session. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/

Journalist Gilinsky writes that Gaza producer, Atwa, who was watching the Sderot clips as they came out, told him he was surprised to learn that so many of Sderot’s inhabitants were of Moroccan origin. There are so many similarities with people of Gaza, Atwa told Gilinsky. “We are both victims of this terrible situation;” “both our governments don’t really listen to us.”[14] “The main difference,” Atwa stated, “is that our suffering in Gaza is much worse than in Sderot” (Gilinsky).

Constructing the web documentary

Matching themes running through the two sets of films are brought out in the 55-minute version of the web documentary that was broadcast three times on Arte in February 2009, two months after the web documentary was completed.[15] Yafa Malka’s reminiscing about the ‘good old day’s before Oslo, for example, when Israeli Jews felt safe visiting Gaza city (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en
), is made to resonate with the episode with fisher Sefian Baker listening to his friend’s reminiscing about Gaza’s good old days when he could take his boat far out to sea and bring back a bountiful catch to sell to Israeli customers (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/
). In the web documentary, viewers have to make such connections themselves.

Web viewers, however, likely did not watch all episodes. On December 16 (six days before the project was completed), Executive Producer Serge Gordey, who was keeping an eye on viewership statistics, said the site was getting “an average of 10,000 hits per day with people spending an average of eight minutes on the site, or watching about four webisodes”(Gilinsky).

"How to" instructions—inventing web documentary interactive techniques in 2008 .

David Dufresne, mentor of the "Web Lab,” argues that “a filmmaker’s perspective lies in the information base, in all the pieces of information the viewer can access” (“Interview of David Dufresne, mentor of the ‘Web Lab’”). In this sense, Gaza Sderot could be said to offer “personal, interactive and non-linear access,” just as the web documentary describes itself (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/ar/about/). It is also liberal, undirected and well-designed. And it is sophisticated in its presentation despite the modest total budget of $265,000. The absence of an exposé of political context, together with a wealth of viewing possibilities, indicates the producers’ willingness to trust the viewer’s own interaction with the web documentary.

The viewer first selects a language for viewing from Arabic, Hebrew, English, French and German. Although the main page (the ‘Time’ tab where one first finds oneself), proposes a growing timeline with a video from Gaza on the left, and a video from Sderot on the right showing what was happening simultaneously, viewers can choose to click anywhere on the timeline and watch any episode in whatever sequence. 

The "timeline"—Gaza on the left, Sderot on the right.

They can choose to watch all episodes involving the same character one after the other by clicking on the ‘Faces’ tab and rolling their cursor over the participants’ faces to make a selection—a face in the black and white lineup of characters expanding and changing to color when a selection becomes possible. It is also (‘is’ because the website is still up and running) possible to pick videos from a satellite map indicating where each was shot and to watch episodes according to location.  “At all moment (sic), you can zoom and displace yourself on the maps,” instructions explain. All the viewing possibilities are clearly laid out at http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/help.

Likewise, the viewer is able to arrange their viewing by subject matter and see all the videos that pertain to a particular topic (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/
). The number of episodes associated with each topic gives an indication of the concerns of the characters and, likely also, the interests or cautions taken by the crew filming. For example, there is only one episode dealing with ‘religious/secular’ from the Sderot side of the border and none at all from Gaza, though religion could easily have been addressed in either locale. The highest scoring topic on the Gaza side goes to ‘siege’ (16 episodes), with ‘borders’ (12) and ‘electricity’ and ‘shortage’ (10 each) close behind. Not surprisingly, on the Sderot side, the highest score is for “Kassam rockets” (18 episodes). Interestingly, and echoing assumptions of the producers of Gaza Sderot, more appears to join the two towns than separate them: ‘Family’ scores 11 in both locales; ‘money’ gets 8 on the Sderot side and 7 in Gaza; ‘optimism’ wins over ‘pessimism’ 6 to 5 in Gaza, and 9 to 4 in Sderot; and ‘humour’ is a topic in 6 episodes in Gaza and 3 in Sderot. Interestingly, I note, in Gaza, humour typically takes the form of irony, the misery-born wit of the underdog traditionally associated with Jewish humour. [As an example, Ahmed Quffah’s friend says they will have to create currency from leaves since they don’t have any Israeli shekels (the currency of the region)—grape leaves will make good 20-shekel notes, but a banana leaf should be worth 200! (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/1/12_09_2008_gaza_to-create-local-currency )]

Web documentary was still a new format in 2008, which explains Gaza Sderot relatively minor impact when it was first mounted. Although the ‘about’ page indicates that the producers envisioned the site having ‘blogs, forums, etc.’ in addition to the videos, in reality, little of that occurs: Producers blog but very few respond. As Bernstein notes, the problem was that Gaza Sderot predated the popularization of social media. In 2008, Twitter as a tool to publicize the production and as a place to react was in its infancy. The producers, Bernstein says, did little in the way of outreach, using only radio and newspaper articles to promote the series since as a state broadcaster Arte couldn’t advertise. As well, he notes, Israelis were then not accustomed to following stories on the web; television was the more familiar medium.

Notably, despite the electrical blackouts, it was still possible in 2008 to view the web doc in Gaza because “Gaza Sderot’ was made available in both broad band and in lower resolution. But the series was not well known in Gaza either. Nor was it frequently viewed in other locales in the Middle East. According to Bernstein, the primary audience for Gaza Sderot was France and the United States.

What catapulted Gaza Sderot into the public eye is what happened after the web documentary was formally completed. The military campaign against Hamas that Israel called “Operation Cast Lead” began December 27, 2008, by chance three days after the last episode of Gaza Sderot had been posted on Arte’s website. Suddenly attention was focused on the work of film crews who had been there before the war broke out. The production team immediately realized they had a subject of vital interest. They wanted to continue filming with the documentary characters, but because of attacks, the producers in Gaza were unreachable (“Video project highlights life on the border”).

Gaza Sderot went on to win several prizes[16] and was a nominee for the International Digital Emmy Award.[17]

"Maps" approach—location of videos with the Gaza characters on the left, Sderot on the right. User clicks to see the video.


Was Gaza Sderot the web documentary a success? The means to judge success in the medium of the web documentary is still beginning to be developed (Nash; Nash et al.). As a learning experience, for me what stood out in the Gaza videos (I mention Gaza because for me it was the less familiar territory) were class differences (i.e. the existence of an economically comfortable class in Gaza when all I had viewed previously concentrated exclusively on scarcity), and similarly, the incongruence between the number of unemployed youth in the café and an abundance of cakes on offer. As noted, I was also struck by the clear separation of males and females in the social world, but also by the simple gestures of kindness between people (e.g. as Amjad, the pharmacist, stands in line at the bakery, a man who doesn’t need his quota of bread proposes that it be given to another). Did these elements also strike other viewers? In the space for comments joined to each episode, only the occasional episode received a good number of remarks; many received none at all. Comments were in French, English, and, less often, in German or Hebrew or Arabic—with speakers of Hebrew and Arabic apparently most often using English instead. Lengthy comments, and more opinionated comments were more common at the beginning of the series. A few entries posed questions or left web addresses where viewers could seek more information. Most commenters seemed to grasp the web doc’s appeal to view the similarities between the two sides. My personal observations about class aspects were not generally echoed (though incongruously, one viewer from Sderot taunted the producers to show the wealthy of Gaza), However there was frequent appreciation for the shared humanity of the characters on both sides, echoing my own appreciation for gestures of kindness. A few commentators persisted in spewing invectives.

To an episode with Yafa Malka where she and others comment about the ‘good old days’ when they would frequently visit Gaza and Gazans came to them (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/en/#/faces/8/11_26_2008_sderot_happy-days-of-coexistence), I came across a strikingly political reply from what I thought was a viewer:

"I grew up in the center of Israel, near Tel Aviv, where we seldom met real-life Palestinians. To me, what the people of Sderot are saying sounds a bit like how a master would remember his subordinate — friendly, nostalgic, but always above. Indeed, most of Sderot is politically right wing, prodding our government to make no concessions. In contrast, the people I grew up with and whose example I followed, left wing liberals of European descent, had a sympathy to the Palestinians which was mainly theoretical — never marred by memories of living together in the old country or by day to day business transactions or disputes.”

It was only when I read the ‘Blog’ did I realize that this comment was actually made by Ayelet Bechar of Alma Films, content editor on Gaza Sderot—not an ordinary spectator.  

Similarly, in the comments section to the ambulance driver, Abu Khalil’s, episode about Israeli soldiers’ refusing to allow a pregnant Gaza woman to cross the border for treatment, though she has the necessary permit, it is Yousef Atwa, the Gaza producer, who replies to an irritated ‘Enrique from Israel.’ The Israeli questions the right of Gaza’s sick even to go to Israel for treatment since they do not pay Israeli social security fees. He suggests (apparently not with irony) that they should be sent to Egypt instead. Then, directing his attack at Gaza Sderot’s production team, the Israeli accuses the web documentary’s producers of hiding from the ‘real’ question, which is, “Why is the city of Ashqelon [in Israel] which provides medical attention and electricity to Gaza constantly shelled with Kassam rockets?” Atwa struggled with his English to present the producers’ point of view. (http://gaza-sderot.arte.tv/he/11_07_2008_gaza_abu-khalil-and-pregnant-woman/en/ )

Though Atwa could have defended the episode with a strong analysis of Israel’s economic relationship with Palestine, he justifies the episode simply by speaking of the sorely inadequate medical facilities in Gaza, and the dangers of decisions made according to soldiers’ moods—points already made in the online episode. He avoids the Ashqelon challenge of ‘Enrique from Israel’ in his reply. 

But should Atwa have replied in the comments section in the first place? Though directly challenged to do so, replying to comments presumes a lack of trust that other viewers will make the producers’ points for them. The same day that Atwa replied, an American Jew argued the necessity, from a purely moral position, of helping the sick no matter who they are. Humbly, she notes, Americans also “still have difficulty not to pre-judge another based on colour or background.” She says she wholeheartedly hopes “that we can get past our differences and see the overwhelming commonalities”—a worthy reply for Atwa.

The etiquette for online replies and for appropriate responses from producers was relatively undeveloped in 2008. That in Gaza Sderot the production team wanted to blog and reply shows them personally engaged in their web endeavor and unable to stand aside or to speak only of production matters.

The war ends

Operation Cast Lead ended in a unilateral ceasefire by Israel on January 18, 2009, followed by a ceasefire by Hamas twelve hours later. Not having managed to resume the web documentary when the escalation of hostilities began, the producers felt it was necessary to at least add new videos from the war in the Blog section. They only succeeded in doing so after the fighting ceased and things settled down. They shot four videos from each side, produced in association with B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), and posted these on the Arte France website between March 26 and April 14, 2009. One viewer insensitively complained that these episodes did not appear in the normal regular intervals.

Sderot in green rocket range.

Executive Producer Serge Gordey; Producer Arik Bernstein; and documentary characters, musicians Avi Vaknin and Khalaf Qassim, appeared together in a short radio document on PRI (Public Radio International) on December 30, 2008 while the war was still raging (“Video project highlights life on the border”). Here, Serge Gordey proposes that Gaza Sderot was an antidote to Middle East compassion fatigue engendered by seemingly non-stop reports of violence in Israel-Palestine.  Yes, “the Gaza Sderot video project lets you be a fly on the wall for the intimate and mundane moments of people's lives,” adds the radio host; “the power of these films is that they remind you that people in conflict zones are really just like everyone else.” “When you realize that people have the same issues about work or about love, about raising your kids, in places where you don't first think in these terms, well then I get the feeling that we're doing good work,” Gordey concluded; “and that happened quite a few times.” But, he added, “it's a bit depressing to think that we spent a year showing that, you know, life goes on, and the day that we finished, the war broke out.


It is important to note that the ground and air attack of Operation Cast Lead drastically changed the situation in Gaza. In the PRI interview, reporter Carol Zall explains that she had tried to reach the Gaza team while fighting continued, but telephone communication was impossible. A note with a later transcript of the radio interview reassures that no one from the Gaza team was injured in the Israeli attacks [“Video project highlights life on the border” (audio transcript)].

Ramattan, the news agency of Gaza producer Atwa, played a major role during the 22-days of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead.” Ramattan recorded footage of what was taking place in Gaza under difficult and dangerous conditions. With foreign news agencies not present, theirs was often the only footage sent to worldwide cable-news markets; it was broadcast on television screens across the globe.[18]

Still shot from video footage filmed on the 18th day of the War on Gaza (Jan. 13, 2009) showing the destruction sustained from Israeli-Palestinian clash in the area. Date: 13 January 2009. Source: Al Jazeera English. War On Gaza Day 18, still image at 00:44s. Al Jazeera has a large Creative Commons image repository.

Ramattan’s images were praised in The Electronic Intifada by Gideon Levy, a columnist at the left-leaning Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, and a member of its editorial board: “The whole world saw the images. They shocked every human being who saw them, even if they left most Israelis cold,” he wrote. “The conclusion is that Israel is a violent and dangerous country, devoid of all restraints and blatantly ignoring the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, while not giving a hoot about international law. The investigations are on their way.” (https://electronicintifada.net/content/ramattans-war-worlds-eyes-gaza/8078)

Gaza Sderot is not the only web documentary made on the Israel Palestine conflict, but, to date, it is the most ambitious and, despite the engagement of its producers, the most balanced in its approach.[19]