Shashat Woman Cinema: the collective memory of 12 years of women filmmakers in the Gaza Strip

by Alia Arasoughly

Founded in 2005, Shashat is an independent indigenous non-profit NGO registered in Palestine with the Palestinian Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Culture, whose focus is on fostering women’s cinema. Shashat aims at building the capacity of young women filmmakers from diverse social and economic backgrounds through training, mentoring, production support, and the exhibition and dissemination of films so that they become producers of a gendered modern and creative Palestinian culture. Shashat is committed in all of its activities to the integration of the creative, cultural, educational, developmental and economic implications of women’s cinema in general and to women’s representations. This is the vision and mandate which informs all of Shashat’s programs and activities. Shashat, which means “screens” in Arabic, emphasizes the diversity and inclusiveness of women’s lives. Shashat is based in Ramallah, but in its commitment to counter Palestinian geographic, communal and political fragmentation, it has expanded its activities since 2006 to the Gaza Strip and has had an office there since 2012.

This office and Shashat’s production and postproduction equipment, which made these films possible, have now all been destroyed. Our landlord lost his home and forty-three members of his family. The women filmmakers and their crews who made these films have had their homes destroyed totally or partially, have lost family members, have been displaced multiple times fleeing from one bombing after another from one area after another, and are in extremely dire conditions of shortages of housing, water, food and medicine for them and their families. We lost one of them and others we lost complete contact with. Contact with others is random and sporadic. There was a time past when we believed that art is transformative…it has not transformed this now of awaiting death by any means.

Some "Shashat Woman Film Festival in Palestine" posters

This article is a partial record of Shashat’s work in the Gaza strip as evident in the twenty-four films made by twelve young Gazan women filmmakers over a decade from 2011 – 2022. They are the first generation of women growing up in the Blockade during the past 18 years of Gaza’s long traumatic and violent history. Their films chronicle how they lived life in Blockaded Gaza, the Division, Gaza’s four wars and days of bombings, the COVID epidemic, the rule of Hamas, and more significantly their times with family and friends. These films hold the memory of who they were before now, of when their passion and energy opened a world beyond blockaded horizons and electrified borders, when what mattered were their dreams. Their films constitute a record, both rare and unique, of a decade of women’s lives in which they were closed off from the outside world, and of a place closed off to the outside world.

Now, a December 6, 2023, night message from one of them reads,

“my mother is wounded, my sister is wounded, our house is bombed, we have no water and no food. I can hear the army close-by. We don’t want to die without anyone hearing our voice.” 

This article, written in the summer of 2023, is a confirmation of them in that other world and time.  

I am not their voice nor their witness. Their short young fresh films are. I shared with them a time when for the most part I knew where they were, knew they were alive, sheltered, eating, and drinking and full of words of their lives. Not short messages of “we’re alive,” “we lost xxx family members,” “we’ve moved again,” “life is impossible,” “God show us mercy”… I shared with them a time when we all believed that culture was an affirmation of human rights and dignity. 

When I was asked a couple of weeks ago to proofread this article, I was paralyzed by the unbearable daunting weight of what I know now, what I have seen now.

I attempted in my proofing, in tribute to them of how they were then, to maintain the time it was written, not hindsighting the films by foregrounding or foreshadowing the now, nor the faces of hundreds of friends and colleagues and others part of Shashat in all the places where Shashat was, phantasms of times of movie watching, in the mounds of rubble now.

Gaza and the Blockade

Bordered by Israel and Egypt on the Mediterranean coast, the Gaza Strip is about 141 square miles with a population of over 2.1 million people and is the third most densely populated area in the world, in comparison with Detroit, USA (370 sq. m., population 632,500) and Sheffield, UK (367 sq. m., population 584,000).

The Gaza Strip has been called the largest open-air prison in the world.

It has been under land, sea and air Blockade by Israel since June 2007, virtually isolating it from the rest of the occupied Palestinian land and the world.[1] [open notes in new window] Palestinians are banned from leaving Gaza via Israel, including for passage to the West Bank, unless they obtain a nearly impossible Israeli-issued exit permit. Only those belonging to certain categories, primarily traders (including de facto day laborers allowed to work in Israel), sometimes patients and their accompaniers, and some international aid workers, can apply for such a permit. Permissions to exit sometimes are granted only an hour or two before.

Gaza is bordered by Egypt in the south, which operates the Rafah Crossing between the Palestinian Rafah and the Egyptian Rafah governorates. Palestinians wishing to leave Gaza via Egypt must register with the local Palestinian authorities two to four weeks in advance, which does not guarantee them exit. People may also apply directly to the Egyptian authorities, using the services of a private company. The procedures and decisions by both authorities lack transparency. Those that are approved exit through the Rafah Crossing, controlled by the Egyptian authorities. The 380-kilometer (240-mile) road trip to Cairo passes through the sweltering desert of the Sinai Peninsula, with multiple security checkpoints and nighttime curfews, where the Egyptian army has been fighting armed Islamic State groups. The road to Cairo should take six hours, but in reality, the trip takes a day at best, more often two to five days.

Gazans share terrible stories about this passage: humiliation at the hands of Egyptian customs officers who sometimes subject them to extortion, whole days spent waiting under the sun without access to toilets. Some pay more than 1,000 euros for a "VIP" service provided by a company linked to Egyptian military intelligence. "That's the price of a dignified trip," said a public figure, who begged us not to mention his name.[2] The Egyptian authorities closed the Rafah Border Crossing with Gaza for long periods after 2014 following political unrest in Egypt.[3] But even under the best of circumstances, there is a lot of uncertainty as to when the crossing would be open for travel, so Gazans cannot plan their travel with any confidence—a further  harassment in tandem with similar ones by the Israelis.

Unemployment levels in Gaza are amongst the highest in the world: the jobless rate in 2022 was 46.6%. Youth unemployment for the same period (age 15-29) stands at 62.5%. (PCBS).[4] More than half of all Palestinians in Gaza (1.3 million of 2.1 million) require food assistance.

At its current operating capacity, the Gaza Power Plant can only produce up to 80 megawatts (MW), supplemented by 120 MW purchased from Israel, meeting about 50% of the electricity demand in Gaza (400-450MW). In 2021, rolling power cuts averaged 11 hours per day. 78% of piped water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.

Given the prevailing situation in Gaza the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has commented,

“The Blockade has raised concern about collective punishment and other possible violations under international humanitarian and human rights law. The Blockade on Gaza should be fully lifted in line with Security Council Resolution 1860.”[5]

The 2022-2023 Amnesty International report stated that Israel’s continuing oppressive and discriminatory system of governing Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) constitutes a system of apartheid, and Israeli officials commit the crime of apartheid under international law.[6]

Shashat in Gaza

The "Shashat Woman Film Festival in Palestine," comprised of film screenings followed by discussions, was launched in Gaza in 2006, while the production training program in Gaza began in 2011 (four years after its launch in the West Bank). Shashat’s training and production program has encompassed many stages and multiple phases over several years, and has targeted Gazan women ages 19-30 years from the whole Gaza Strip, from Beit Hanoun on the northern border with Israel to Kuza`a on the east bordering with Israel, to the Rafah refugee camp on the southern border with Egypt.

Since its founding in 2005 Shashat has also grown the audience for Palestinian women’s films in Palestine, in the region and internationally. Its women filmmakers have told the Palestinian story as lived by them, presenting multidimensional perspectives on occupied Palestinian lives.

Shashat received the Palestinian Ministry of Culture “Award for Excellence in Cinema” (2010), the only time this award has been given. In 2013 it also received an award from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture jointly with the Palestinian Ministry of Women Affairs for making “a change in Palestinian society towards a gender-rights based society.” Shashat has been honored internationally and regionally. It was selected by the Euromed Women’s Foundation in 2012 for its “successful practice…which has a strong added value and could inspire other initiatives in the Euro-Mediterranean region” and was honored by the Sale International Women Film Festival in Morocco in 2008 for making women’s cinema accepted on the grassroots level. It won the 2015 Oxfam/CAWTAR regional cinema competition for films on gender-based violence. It was twice honored by the Algerian Ministry of Culture—in the “Committed Film Festival” in 2012, for the impact of its films on communities outside the center, and in 2022, at the closing ceremony of 11th Algerian International Cinema Festival as an "Outstanding Cinema Organization” for its social impact, with an homage to its director.

Shashat has produced one hundred and twenty short fiction, documentary, and experimental films by young women filmmakers trained and/or mentored by Shashat, and twenty-five TV programs featuring community discussions of some of the films which were broadcast on Palestinian satellite channels. Since Shashat’s founding, over 200,000 participants have taken part in screenings and discussions of Shashat’s films in collaboration with 442 organizations in 265 localities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. It has succeeded in making women’s cinema accepted and valued at the grassroots level throughout Palestine, and for the past 19 years its cultural products have been a centerpiece in local communities’ cultural activities: in cities, towns, villages, refugee camps, as well as in Bedouin communities in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Shashat’s activities are centered around five program areas:

1. “Gender Equality in the Creative Industries” is a program which provides professional training and production opportunities for young women predominantly from deprived and peripheral communities, enhancing their employment opportunities in the audio-visual sector in leading roles. This program was launched in 2007 in the West Bank and Jerusalem, two years after Shashat’s founding in 2005; in 2011 the program was extended to the Gaza Strip.

2. “The Adolescent & Youth Media Interventions (What’s Tomorrow)” program was launched in 2016 with the aim of providing the impetus and opening a space for adolescents to reflect and imagine horizons of different values and relationships, especially those relating to gender. It engages female and male adolescents in collabrative relationships with one another through the interactive and reflective venue of video production, including documentary fiction, mobile and music videos. It further engages adults who work with adolescents, including teachers, school counselors, and parents, as well as members of the community and the society at large in these adolescent imaginings of their tomorrow.

3. “The Big Sister” program, which focuses on shared capacity and financial sub-granting to community-based organizations, empowering and amplifying community voices which advocate for gender equality and women and girls’ human rights; and on countering the increasing regressive discourse and hijacking  of community voices by anti-feminist and fundamentalist groups.

4. The “Yalla nshouf film!” (“Come Let’s See a Movie”) cultural social program includes both “Films for All” and “Shashat Woman Film Festival in Palestine.” The program is premised on articles 27 and 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the right of cultural and art participation and freedom of opinion and expression. Since Shashat’s founding, over 200,000 participants have taken part in screenings and discussions of Shashat’s films in collaboration with 442 organizations in 265 localities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The festival is the longest running film festival in Palestine, and one of the longest running women’s film festivals in the Arab world. It features Palestinian, Arab and international women filmmakers. “Films for All’ tours festival films and other films in an ongoing annual screening and discussion basis throughout communities in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza strip.

Our Heedless Wars by Randa Chahal Sabbag, 1995. Lebanon. This is considered one of the most important Arab documentaries. A daring and thought-provoking journey of discovery of a family’s complicit and implicit role in the Lebanese Civil War. Tell Zaatar - Because Roots do not Die by Nabiha Lotfi, 1975 -1977. Tell el-Za`atar was a refugee camp in Beirut, with a population of 17,000 Palestinians and 13,000 poor Lebanese, who worked in the surrounding industrial belt comprising 29% of Lebanese factories. Women survivors’ testimony in this panorama of life in the camp before it sustained 74 attacks and a 53-day siege by Lebanese rightist militias, when it was overrun on August 12, 1976, in a terrible massacre and the camp liquidated.
Divorce Iranian Style by Kim Longinoto. Shashat subtitled into Arabic. Sulafa Jadallah. Sulafa is the first Palestinian woman filmmaker. She graduated from the High Institute of Cinema in Egypt in 1964. She lost her legs while filming the 1970 battles between the Palestinian resistance and the Jordanian army. Shashat’s festival prize is named for her.

The festival opens both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, bridging sectarian divisions and geographic fragmentation through women’s cinema. It tours in those two locations and in the Jerusalem area. It awards the “Sulafa Jadallah Award” for outstanding contribution to women’s cinema.

5. The “Cinema Cultural Program,” which includes a specialized film library with films and DVDs on Arab and international classics in three different sites in the West Bank; cine-club screenings and conversations; networking, research and publications; and the rental of subsidized equipment to the filmmaking sector.

Conditions of production

Gazan filmmakers encounter extreme difficulties and dangers during the training and the production process—both external[7] and internal—in order to tell their personal subjective stories.[8] In my discussion of the films I also elide the human pain and anguish suffered by all of us and lived through the days and nights—filmmakers, crews, staff and board members. Also, the financial cost that our organization, Shashat Woman Cinema, bears for insisting on continuing its work in the Gaza Strip with women filmmakers.

The sporadic as well as full-scale Israeli bombings of Gaza did not heed our training and production schedules. Training had to be interrupted many times when bombings began for a few hours, days, or months, while we were at a loss of what to do…send the young women home so that they could be with their families? Was it safe for them to be on the streets and alleys, or was it safer for them to stay in the training hall? When was it safe for them to leave a location? When was it safe to return the equipment to the office? No one knew where, when or what was a safe place in Gaza, as houses and buildings were bombed with their inhabitants in them. Did our office get bombed? How to replace destroyed equipment? Did the bombing of the building next door damage our office too? When can our office manager check our office and equipment, climbing over the mountains of debris from bombed buildings as no car could get through?

What about the young women who insist on forging ahead on empty streets and alleys desperate to be with their families? If anything should happen to them or their families, how do we track their movement across a dangerous landscape, not wanting to call to interrupt their nightmarish trek, or lose the signal because of the bombings?

What do we do with equipment and personnel when suddenly bombing starts? Send the young women home right away to their families? Load equipment in cars which the drone may bomb, mistaking them for cars carrying fighters or rockets? Leave the equipment on the street to lose it forever after it took us years to get it into Gaza through the Blockade?

What about, especially during the longer wars, losing phone and mobile contact with the filmmakers, subsidizing phone cards for all of them? While they, after the war, were desperately trying to make up for their destroyed belongings and their children’s clothes and school books? What about the anguish of learning after the 51st day of the 2014 war that one of the filmmakers who could not catch up with her barefoot-running family hid in a kitchen cupboard, panicked and trembling for several days while the war and killings took place outside and the house-to-house searches reached her house? What about one young filmmaker who didn’t connect that the hot blood running down her legs was hers?  

The process of obtaining shooting permits for our women filmmakers and their crew is challenging in the tense security landscape of Gaza. Requests to shoot films have to be submitted to the Gazan Ministry of Culture (of the separate Hamas government which rules the Gaza Strip). Full names which include surname, father, grandfather, and family name have to be submitted with the ID number of all crew members, dates of production, names of locations, and in some cases those to be interviewed (for a documentary) or cast members (for fiction). A description of the project has to be included and justified. After the Ministry of Culture reviews the names and locations, they are sent  for a security check. A member of the crew, usually the production manager, may be called in for an interview with a security person for further information. The permit is not assured, and can take months or weeks, before the final  issue by the police. This permit is to be carried all the time, in case it is requested by any policeman or undercover security personnel. These strict security measures are attributed to Israel’s constant search for intelligence inside Gaza and the fear of cameras as a potential source of intelligence (as seen in the targeted assassinations by Israel).

This permit is supposed to facilitate movement and production but not always and not totally, for other factors are at play. In some instances, while shooting in a location, the crew are accosted by plain clothes security personnel for being close to the domicile of a ‘security’ person, unbeknown to them—for of course he is not known publicly. Sometimes the crew reads the situation quickly and makes a fast exit from that location with their equipment after their permit fails to produce any impact. This results in a shoot interrupted for that day with the corresponding additional expense. Sometimes a location is closed off for ‘security’ reasons which are not clear to the crew and an alternate nearby location and pre-production have to be done on the spot or the shoot has to be postponed. Sometimes, while the crew is trying to work unobtrusively, it is not unusual for a policeman to ask for their IDs and permits and conduct lengthy checks.

This naturally results in attracting passersby and creating a crowd, making continuing to shoot impossible. Sometimes an overzealous passerby becomes outraged at seeing young women with young men who are not their relatives (muharram—forbidden to them), and makes a scene causing passersby and the police to congregate to find out what is the problem. Other times, neighbors suspicious of cameras around their homes and fearing that this may be intelligence gathering for the Israelis, leading to their bombing, harass the crew and demand that they leave the location. Under these stressful working conditions in addition to fear for their families during unstable conditions of sporadic bombings, it is not surprising that sometimes cast members are unable to act, or they panic and leave the production temporarily or permanently, affecting the footage that had been shot earlier, the production schedule and the budget.

The cost of re-scheduling, and re-shooting in monetary value and staff time is quite daunting for an organization such as Shashat which does not have core or endowed funding, and receives funds based on project-by-project activity-based itemized budgets. It poses challenges when Shashat has to cover the cost of six days of training or shooting when the budget covers four days only. Do we ask trainers, crews and cast to work additional days with no compensation because there were bombings or other security issues that interrupted their work that day? Do we not pay a cast member for not fulfilling their contract and leaving a production in the middle, panicked with fear for their family? These are difficult questions for Shashat, especially in the context of the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip. Do we ask staff members to work weekends or ten-hour days in order to rework and fulfill the schedule? What little unrestricted income we generate from the rental of our equipment barely complements supporting the running costs of the organization, with some staff members in the past volunteering, taking salary cuts or delaying their salaries for months.

Some of Shashat’s women filmmakers from the Gaza strip and the West Bank.