Gaza Ghetto: How to make a film under military occupation

by Joan Mandell

Raida checks whether soldiers are patrolling the street, Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza. During extended mass house arrest (curfew) Israeli personnel carrier enters camp.

Last year, I was asked by Jump Cut to write an article about the making of our film, Gaza Ghetto. The times that the film portrays, from 1948 to 1984, seem almost innocent by comparison with today.

(December 2023) From outside the killing fields of Gaza, we have watched the destruction of the lives and livelihood of two million people. Homes, schools, mosques and churches blasted into archaeological ruin with more still happening. Our brains seek safe spaces to absorb the shock of the murder of children and adults by high-powered Israeli bombs, sent and funded by the United States. With all our fervent prayers, protests and petitions, we have not been able to stop this calamity.

Palestinian poets and painters, students and teachers, journalists and farmers have scattered, clutching each other in tiny shelters, nursing the wounds and deaths of loved ones. Scrambling to find food, water and fuel as winter settles, trying to stay alive and to connect with each other. Among these people are the residents of Jabalia Refugee Camp portrayed in our documentary.

Abdullah, who appeared in the film as a child, and is now a father of teenagers, had this to say in a recent phone conversation: “This film was the first documentary to tell the history of Gaza in a brave way, against what the formal news was showing and what pro-Israel media was saying. It shows how my grandmother died, and how my brother was born. It shows how to advocate for people’s rights and for anti-colonialism, and how to tell the truth even if everyone is saying it differently.”

I hope that you will take this opportunity to watch Gaza Ghetto, to learn about Palestinian history through the stories of Abdullah’s family and their neighbors in Jabalia. That you will hold them in your hearts, as you find your own ways to advocate for people’s rights, for peace and justice. Even if the powers-that-be tell you differently.


(August 2023) It’s been 40 years since we made Gaza Ghetto: Portrait of a Palestinian Family, 1948-84, and it’s kind of mind-blowing after all these years that people are still asking about the making of the film. Perhaps that’s because there aren’t many artifacts of life in Gaza at an earlier time on film. This was the first feature documentary to portray daily life in Gaza within a political context. That also makes it a historical artifact of discourse on Palestine and international solidarity. When I told a friend who saw Gaza Ghetto that I was asked to write this essay, she remembered the vitriolic audience response to the film in the late 1980s at UCLA’s Melnitz Auditorium.

Gaza Ghetto is set primarily in Jabalia, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza Strip. The camp was created in 1948, after thousands of Palestinians were deported from hometowns just 10-15 kilometers away, their houses and businesses bulldozed and dynamited by Israeli troops. Egypt controlled the area until Israel captured it during the 1967 War. Israel installed a military authority that ruled the predominantly refugee population with a steady diet of house demolition, mass incarceration, and draconian laws that limited freedom of movement and assembly. Jabalia has been a place of sacrifice and resistance where the First Intifada began. It is also a place where people celebrate first love, children play and go to school, and inspiration and poetry are alive.

In the early 1980s, I was working for Al-Fajr, a Palestinian newsweekly based in East Jerusalem. I joined two Swedish filmmakers to tell the story of the impact of war and military occupation on Palestinian refugees in Jabalia. The result was our 82-minute feature documentary, Gaza Ghetto.

The ride to Gaza in those years was ninety minutes, and the borders across the nearly invisible “Green Line” between Israel and Gaza were not walled or monitored as today. I often went for three-day weddings—to eat fish with my hands, to trade secrets with girls for whom I was safer than their mothers, to learn how people survive military curfews, ponds of sewage and years in prison. Women showed me how they cross-stitched in the patterns of their original villages. We sat on the ground for hours discussing the day’s events while de-stemming the tiny green leaves of malukhia for dinner with a family of ten. I met with intellectuals, activists and artists in Jabalia and throughout Gaza Strip, and typed up my scribbled notes in our Jerusalem newspaper office on a manual typewriter. I obsessively gathered news, despite my Palestinian publisher’s lack of interest in extensive coverage of the territory. Most of what I wrote was prohibited from publication by the Israeli military censor. I was looking for an outlet. I considered writing a book.

Gaza Ghetto family eating breakfast before school. Jabalia refugee camp children push a car to try to jumpstart a dead battery.
After the Israeli army demolished her house, Palestinian woman plants a garden. Israeli tanks in Jabalia during curfew.

Into my life walked PeA Holmquist. PeA was an experienced Swedish film producer and cinematographer. The Swedish TV broadcast of his recent documentary, The Battle of Jerusalem, caused quite a stir when it aired on Christmas Day, 1979. Like me, PeA was a determined and dedicated chronicler, with a penchant for representing stories of disenfranchised people with utmost respect. Palestinians from Gaza visiting Sweden convinced him to make a film because there was none, and he succeeded in raising funds from Swedish arts and government sources.

A friend in Gaza who was a well-known short story author heard rumors that a Swedish producer was coming to town. He was unsure of the angle, and asked whether I would be a cultural liaison and Arabic-English translator. I had no idea that producer was PeA, when a few months later I noticed a blonde man with an Aaton camera hesitating at the gate of Shifa Hospital in downtown Gaza City. I had been visiting the hospital for weeks to document Israeli army shootings of children resisting occupation in street demonstrations. PeA was trying to secure permission to film, which I explained was a bad idea. I hustled him into the emergency ward to record what became a scene in Gaza Ghetto. From that day on, we worked together.

The third member of our filmmaking team was Pierre Bjorklund, a film and theater director with years working in the global south. Pierre became our co-conspirator and sound recordist. His calm intelligence and gentle demeanor was the perfect balance for our intense personalities. Pierre related seamlessly with all generations in Jabalia, especially through his body language and the appreciation he expressed for home-cooking with two of the most important words in Palestinian Arabic, zaki kteer (very delicious).

Beginning with my network of friends and acquaintances, we interviewed around 25 families to find engaging people who could endure our extended presence without being put at risk of reprisal by the military authorities. Once we made initial selections, we organized a group screening of PeA’s Jerusalem film to illustrate the filmmaking process and to discuss our plans.

Choosing a venue to show the film was not easy. Under military law, it was illegal to gather in groups over 10 and any large meeting in Jabalia would surely attract army patrols. The wealthy owner of a large orange grove outside the camp offered his mansion, but some camp residents felt a bit awkward. A middle-class host with a good reputation suggested his home closer to Jabalia, and we made the rounds to offer invitations. Some older women seemed hesitant to leave household responsibilities for what they considered a movie night with men. Since it was crucial to have everyone on board, I appealed to each man to show up with his sister, mother or wife. And that’s what happened.

Movie night. Candles flickering on the staircase. My first thought was “how romantic” until I quickly realized that this was because the electricity had gone out. As we waited for the power to return, one woman, Um Abdullah, hushed the crowd and proposed that people stand up to tell their stories. Um Suhail spoke first. She expressed her frustrations trying to get accountability from the Israeli military for murdering her eight-year-old son Suhail. Um Abdullah took the floor again, this time with the rallying cry of a partisan: “We need to make this film even if we have to die!” Then, as if on cue, the lights came on, and we watched PeA’s documentary.

As filmmakers, we left the meeting assured of the intense desire of people to participate in a project they hoped would truly represent their circumstances and dreams of political justice. One of the women who initially feared neighborhood judgement for joining in became one of our most ardent supporters. The meeting also served for all assembled as a way to identify who could be trusted to discuss concerns throughout the making of the film.

Abu Abdullah (Mustafa). Abu el-Adel shows his dad the sycamore tree and cactus planted in their now-demolished hometown, Dimra.

When we started filming several families, the openness and sociability of the family of grandfather Abu-el Adel as well as their abilities to articulate a collective story was obvious. The family's narrative became the spine around which the stories of the other families intertwined. Gaza Ghetto opens with his daughter Itidhal (Um Abdullah)[1] bravely confronting Israeli residents on the kibbutz that displaced her father’s village [open notes in new window] She questions why Palestinians could work in Israel, but not visit their original homes. Son-in-law Mustafa (Abu Abdullah) was our trusted advisor always ready with thoughtful analyses both on and off-camera. The life stories narrated by Abu el-Adel were emblematic of the dispossession long faced by Palestinian refugees. When we attempted a family visit to their original village of Dimra, Abu el-Adel was excited to discover the sycamore tree planted by his Uncle Khalil that Abu would show to his nearly-blind father. The tree signified family cultural roots in indigenous soil that he was intent to pass to his grandchildren.

And, of course, the grandchildren… in the film, 12-year-old Ra’ida, whip-smart and unpretentious, explains why the land is so important to the identities of young people like herself who take to the streets to participate in political protest. In one scene, she weighs the legacy of a stone from a demolished Palestinian house, and in another she takes notes as her grandfather speaks. Her younger siblings, and children in the other families of Gaza Ghetto, might not have understood what it meant to be characters in a film, but their serious and silly gestures made for many of the film’s pivotal moments.

Gaza Ghetto was my first experience as a film director and I loved the collective process more than solitary journalism. We were able to follow people to hear their stories over time, rather than to expect them to divulge innermost thoughts in one-off interviews. I naively thought that all films were made in such an inclusive and emotionally authentic manner, consulting with participants, deepening relationships, and working without hierarchy on a crew. I didn’t realize until later, that our process came from the democratic spirit that PeA encouraged, and the courage of the participants who defied odds to make their voices heard. If you get the chance to watch Gaza Ghetto, you will hopefully have a sense of the hospitality, humor and sometimes painful candor that people shared with us, and that still resonates on screen forty years later.

PeA and Pierre came and went between Sweden and Gaza, while I kept in touch with the Jabalia families with extended visits from Jerusalem. I stayed with Itidhal as she neared the end of her difficult pregnancy when Mustafa was working nightshift. She did not feel safe alone with memories of her own mother dying in childbirth in 1971 during a camp-wide lockdown when the Israeli army did not allow an ambulance to reach her. When Mukhlas was born, PeA, Pierre and I were all at the hospital, elated to be with the happy mother and to film Mustafa seeing his child for the first time.

So many people in Jabalia camp and elsewhere in Gaza housed us, mentored us and were called into military headquarters to explain their relationship to us. Initially, we hired one of the many Palestinian taxi drivers to take us around. Israeli soldiers stopped the taxi to interrogate the driver about our presence. He honestly said that we had not been filming and he did not know our mission. That was not enough to keep him from being detained and having his ID card confiscated, which meant that he could not work nor even be seen safely in public. An Israeli officer ordered the driver to return to headquarters day after day for a week, until the military decided the penalty was enough. We felt awful, and decided to find our own wheels. We were lucky to rent a car with a Gaza-identified silver license plate from the brother-in-law of a friend.

Then there was the periscope. We commissioned a carpenter, who ordinarily made furniture for newlyweds, to build a device so we could film unnoticed while driving through the camp. The carpenter asked for a little extra time to make the periscope beautiful and finished it with pale green formica. He was so proud of his work that he asked us to send his way all our friends who needed periscopes.

We found people everywhere ready to pitch in when they understood why we were filming. Teenage wranglers held back cascades of youngsters pressing their curiosity towards the camera. Sons of a shepherd planted themselves on the hillside outside the camp during a several day camp-wide curfew so they could warn of army foot patrols. Women offered us food and tea, then more food and tea and mattresses and space in their tiny cement block homes. A brave soul allowed us to film from his window facing the Israeli military compound in the center of Jabalia.

I acknowledge these unsung heroes here, because we could not include them in the credits for reasons of their personal safety.

Israeli soldiers threw us out of the camp several times, or ordered us to stop filming even on what appeared to be quiet days. Sometimes areas became “closed” just because we showed up with a camera. Although our main concern was the army, there was also a concern about informants who collaborated with the authorities, so we spent one full afternoon “filming” at an UNWRA health clinic as cover in case anyone wanted to make a report. There was no film in the camera.

Filming in Jabalia under the radar of the army taught us new ways to be discreet. PeA and Pierre carried their Aaton and Nagra in sports bags as we entered homes. We filmed interviews inside before we recorded exterior scenes, just in case. PeA wore a cap to conceal his blonde locks and often sat in the back seat of the car. After dark I crept through narrow, sandy alleyways to reach people under house arrest, quiet as a mouse. Those were some of the ways we worked to take precautions and to establish trust in Jabalia.

Our efforts to interview Israelis directly involved in the oppression of Palestinian lives had their own dramas. PeA doggedly pursued meetings with the architects of military rule to expose their justifications for creating and legitimizing this oppressive system. General Ariel Sharon’s press secretary was openly suspicious of PeA’s persistent attempts to score an interview, so we were surprised when he suddenly granted permission to meet Sharon in his southern Israel home. Sharon’s sprawling sheep ranch sat on on the remains of the demolished Palestinian village of Houj, close to Abu el-Adel’s home village of Dimra.

While Sharon hugs a sheep and describes himself as “a farmer, and a son of a farmer and more than everything I’m a farmer,” the camera catches a glimpse of a Palestinian ranch-hand in the distant background. In the film, you can hear PeA’s voice ask whether there were any Arab villages around the area and Sharon’s vague reply about “co-existence.” I was unable to participate that day because a check of my security record would have indicated a stint in Israeli prison for photographing children targeted in street protests by Israeli snipers.

Ariel Sharon at home on the site of the demolished Palestinian village of Houj. Newsreel of Palestinians in Gaza taken off a public bus for investigation by Israeli army, 1971.

We intercut Sharon’s descriptions of his 1971 military operations with testimonies from our Jabalia family. Sharon said:

“We started an operation that … managed to clean Gaza district of PLO terrorists. What is most important is that we managed to do what the Americans didn’t manage to do in Vietnam and that is the pacification of the population. We didn’t harm the civilian population that were not active in terrorism and enabled the local population to live their normal lives.”

Abu el-Adel’s story stands in stark contrast. He recalls how Sharon’s forces destroyed his first Jabalia house and modest barber shop, forcing him into work as a day laborer. Mustafa, who spent three years in prison on charges of membership in a Palestinian resistance organization, gives Sharon credit for wholesale assassination, incarceration and deportation. Newsreel footage depicts the military engaged in indiscriminate civilian round-ups. [2]