Resilience under fire: Gaza on film, video and television

review by Inez Hedges

Gaza on Screen edited by Nadia Yaqub (Duke University Press, 2023); $105 (hardcover), $28 (paperback); and open access

This important book comes out of the 2019 film festival held at Columbia University curated by Nadia Yaqub, the book’s editor. The festival was sponsored by the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia, founded in 2010 in honor of legendary Palestinian author and critic Edward Said. Yaqub is a professor at the University of North Carolina, where she put together a second Gaza film festival also in 2019. This was sponsored by the Duke-UNC consortium for Middle Eastern studies and UNC Middle East and Islamic Studies. Here, as Yaqub reports, things did not go as smoothly: the 2019 Gaza Conference, of which the film festival was a part, was attacked by anti-Palestinian racists (as often happens with events highlighting Palestinian issues). Yaqub reports that as a result of these attacks, the Duke-UNC Consortium was investigated by the US Dept. of Education, and that one of the contributors was later attacked as being “anti-Semitic” at her home institution.

A second impetus for this book was the outpouring of visual material during the renewed conflict that broke out in 2021 between Hamas and Israel as a result of the attempted eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. Yaqub reports that institutions as well as media creators made their materials available for free or for a modest fee. The richness of this material makes it possible to reassess and rebalance the conventional image of Gaza as a victim dependent on the world’s humanitarian aid. Yaqub comments:

“Arriving at an understanding of the nature and potential of the visual archive that was deployed in May 2021, and more generally of the cultural and political potential of Palestinian film and video, requires a capacious analytical frame that considers how different types of material, created and circulated in diverse but overlapping ways, interact and inform each other, operating as a visual ecosystem characterized by continuity and change, complementarity and contradiction. It requires simultaneously holding in mind the different communicative requirements of different political and viewing contexts.” (18)

Still from the opening traveling shot of Gaza in Ouroboros (2017) by Basma Alsharif.

The first chapter summarizes a roundtable discussion with filmmakers who have family ties in Gaza and who situate many of their works in the Gaza of their memories or in Gaza itself. This includes (among others:  

Moderator Ahmed Mansour states of their work:

“So, we are the third generation […] the burden on our generation has become heavy, and it gets heavier every day because of the two failed experiences, the experience with arms and the experience with negotiations” (48).

Yaqub pointedly argues that Palestinians making films about Gaza have a responsibility to shift the narrative:

“Filmmakers work against the widespread understanding of Gaza as a humanitarian space controlled by a terrorist regime in which victimhood is overdetermined” (42).

This is also a stand that she takes in her introduction. “Screens,” in her title for the book, refers not just to the filmic or video object but to its transmission via large and small screens. Within that framework, the screen becomes agential, a way of connecting:

“Screens are relational in that they connect people across time and space—thinking about Gazan film and video through the screen encourages us to consider them not as representations addressed to everyone but rather as speech acts inviting viewers into a relationship with the filmed or photographed subject” (6).

Public screenings at Palestinian film festivals can create spaces for reflection and political engagement, while videos shared on cellphones and other small screens can establish a sense of connection and community in times of crisis (6). The book, whose chapters are organized around this concept of screening, examines two overarching themes: Gazans’ self-representations and representations by others. Self-representations include chapters on the culture of caring documented by Mohamed Jabaly's Ambulance, Basma Alsharif’s “found footage” documenting the Occupation, Gazan films of the Oslo period, Gazan resistance videos, and a chapter analyzing the soundscape of Gaza under siege. The “others” comprise Lebanese cinema during the 2014 attacks on Gaza, British Pathé during the colonial period and Gaza in Israeli cinema.

In the chapter on Basma Alsharif, Samira Alkassim adopts filmmaker Najat Rahman’s self-characterization as “post-Darwish,” in reference to the famous Palestinian poet. Instead of repeating the strategy of earlier documentaries that aimed to show the “abject horror” that Gaza has become, these young filmmakers use irony, pastiche, and even humor (84). They create politically engaged art films and what Yaqub calls “creative documentaries” that affirm their collective struggle against dispossession. For instance, in Basma Alsharif”s O Persecuted (2014), scenes from an early Palestinian black-and-white documentary are contrasted with color footage of Israeli youths partying on the beach, “young people for whom the oppression and occupation of Palestinian life are invisible.” In another film, Alsharif graphically matches the graceful pulsations of a jellyfish with its trailing tentacles to the trails left in the sky by phosphorus bombs falling on Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 (85).

Documentation of Israel’s use of white phosphorus bombs on Gaza in 2009.  France 24.

This kind of filmmaking requires an active perception on the part of the viewer who is asked to make the connections. More broadly, the works of this new generation of filmmakers create links with other struggles across the world, as Alsharif eloquently states:

“I wanted Palestine to become everywhere, every place. To shed its identity as a kind of singular conflict and to explore it as a phenomenon of the human condition—the darker sides of humanity coupled with an impossible perseverance and steadfastness to hope beyond hope. I felt that this kind of representation would address the present, and in that way become somewhat removed from Palestine as an icon of struggle to one of being a kind of microcosm for humanity through which anyone could reflect on the present, and the future of anywhere and everywhere” (89).

Other chapters also break out of what Rahman has termed “the hegemony of a tired language about Palestine” (82). In “Gazan Cinema as an Infrastructure of Care,” Vivian Sagler revisits the film Ambulance (2016) whose director Mohamed Jabaly was featured in the preceding roundtable discussion (chapter 1). During the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza, Jabaly decided to join an ambulance crew and record their rescue missions on camera. Sagler explains that Jabaly’s documentary filming is a form of care: “the process of making images both supports on-site rescuing efforts and responds to the pressure of filming as reporting for the international community” (61). She argues that, in the face of the humanitarian tendency to see Palestinians as victims, “the filmmaker distributes care by channeling visibility and reproducing Palestinian self-representations” (64). His film exemplifies what she calls a “double discourse of impact assessment and community-building through affective engagement” (61). Ambulance was the opening film at the second Red Carpet Human Rights Film Festival in Gaza City in 2016 and was shown internationally at major film festivals.

In “Attending to the Fugitive,” Nayrouz Abu Hatoum and Hadeel Assali describe the documentaries of military operations by the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas). They emphasize Palestinian resistance through the elaborate tunnel system built under Gaza as a response to the blockade. In her chapter on “Rendering Gaza Visible,” Kamran Nastegar offers a nuanced discussion of Michel Khleifi’s Tale of the Three Jewels (2001) as a skeptical take on the viability of the Oslo accords.

Gaza post-Oslo but still constrained by Israeli barbed wire:  Michel Khleifi’s Tale of the three Jewels (1994).

In “The Sensory Politics of Return,” Shaira Vadasaria focuses on the soundscape of the Great March of Return, when between March 30, 2018 and December 27, 2019 tens of thousands of Gazans gathered in the al-silik buffer zone with Israel, a militarized area that enforces the ongoing siege. Listening to Gazans’ video footage, Vadasaria remarks,

“What becomes audible in the simultaneous and overlapping soundscape of Israeli drones, firing bullets, ambulances, music, and chants is the demand for a world otherwise. Refusal in this context is expressed through embodied connection to the land, a scream not only of pain and fear but also of collective care and togetherness” (168).

Noting that the Gazans literally laid their bodies on the line, she describes her empathy with the physical presence of those bodies—the odors of food cooking, the songs and shouts of the demonstrators. In the end, the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian affairs reported that 214 Gazans were killed and upward of 36,100 injured, 8,000 of them suffering severe wounds from live ammunition (164). As Kamran Nastegar comments in her own chapter, the “spectacular nature” of the Great March of Return demonstrates “the recognition by Gazans themselves of the power of contesting a visual economy that relegates Gaza to invisibility or to a narrow over-visibility (when subject to massive Israeli military attacks)” (113).

In contrast, the representation of Gaza by outsiders has often described the struggles of its citizens in terms of a radical “othering.” For her discussion of British Pathé’s coverage of Gaza from 1959 onward, Shahd Abusalama delved into the archives of Pathé, researching not only the newsreels that were shown to British audiences, but also those that were never screened. In doing so, she is able to provide an astute analysis of the way media is used to serve political ends. Overall, she describes the marginalization of indigenous Palestinians in these newsreels, as the former colonialists are celebrated for handing over the rule of Palestine to the incoming Jewish settlers. She notes that Gaza was initially controlled by Egypt but was briefly occupied by Israel during and after the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. She writes,

“While a total of five newsreels rationalizing European military intervention against Egypt and in support of Israel were screened in 1956, none of the films on the Israeli occupation of Gaza were screened.”

In this way, the behavior of the Israeli occupiers went unseen. Abusalama reproduces a still from an unscreened reel that shows Gaza’s Palestinian residents, walking with arms raised in what seems to be a detention camp.

Palestinians under heavy Israeli military guard from Israel Takes Gaza (British Pathé, 1956). From Gaza on Screen, 224.

She comments:

“Had these images been screened, they would have contrasted with what British audiences had previously been presented of Israelis—peaceful settlers whose advanced European society was threatened by Arab backwardness, or desperate refugees from Nazi oppression requiring a safe home in Palestine” (224).

She concludes that all along there has been “an affinity between Pathé, the British imperial mission, and the Eurocentric and Orientalist Zionist narrative of progress through settler colonialism” (227).

Two of the book’s contributions focus on the representation of Gaza in Israeli cinema and television: Yaron Shemer’s “So Close, So far” and Rebecca L. Stein’s “How to Unsee Gaza.” Shemer focuses on Israeli film students living close to the border with Gaza in ʿOtef ʿAza, an area that regularly comes under attack from missiles launched by Hamas. Despite this, and perhaps because the Palestinian presence is so palpable, some filmmakers from this area express an understanding of their “interconnected destinies” (116). In Blonde (Sharon Shelly and Oshrat Stern, 2017) Shelly explores and meditates on the bomb shelters that abound in this area due to the 2008-9 war. Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramson’s Men on the Edge: Fishermen’s Diary (2005), filmed from spring 1999 to summer 2003, explores the collaboration between several Israeli and Gazan fishermen, and the way their relationship moves through stages of knowledge-sharing (the Gazans are the more expert) to competition. The Israelis, who are at once hired hands and guards at sea, want to use what they have learned and cut out the Gazans but ultimately have to reenlist their help, since they are unable to be successful on their own. However, the film records that such collaboration is now impossible due to Israel’s blockade of Gaza (125).

Moving to the small screen, Stein discusses an episode on Israeli TV in 2009 when a well-known Palestinian doctor, Dr. Ezzedin Abu al-Aish, called in on a popular program hosted by Shlomi Eldar to beg for help when his children became the victims of bombing by Israel. His distress call mobilized the nation but only because, she asserts, he was a well-known and respected figure in Israel, a “good” Palestinian. In 2021, smartphone images of Gaza’s destruction were sent across the barriers dividing Gaza from Israel, creating another disruption. Still, these images were rarely seen on Israeli screens. Stein comments,

“even in the age of the Palestinian smartphone witness, even at moments when images and footage of military assaults are viral on global networks, reaching audiences across the world on mobile screens, the Israeli media could readily banish Palestinians voices and experiences from the hegemonic frame” (185).

Similarly Hatim El-Hibri’s chapter on Lebanese TV coverage of the 2014 attacks on Gaza by Israel was constrained by the official parameters established in view of Lebanese policies toward its own Palestinian refugee camps:

“In the same moment that Palestinians’ suffering in Gaza is rendered legible and acceptable due to the purity of their victimhood at Israeli hands, Palestinian suffering in Lebanon is refigured in two key ways—meaningful primarily within an unambivalently Palestinian nationalist frame, and not troubled by the deprivations whose more direct source is the Lebanese state” (188).

In other words, Lebanese TV retreated safely into the “humanitarian gaze” so sharply criticized in this volume.

In her lovely and wise afterword, “Gaza Screened,” Helga Tawil- Souri points out that “screening” has two meanings: Israel tries to “screen” (control) everything and everyone that moves in and out of Gaza. Movie screens, TV screens and the small screens of cellphones, however, break through that “screening” and move beyond those barriers.

This is a thoughtful book that will challenge many received opinions about Gaza. It is necessarily fragmented in its approach, partly due to its origins in the 2019 conference—much is left to be completed by other voices. The numerous young women Gazan filmmakers trained by Shashat are not mentioned, and the reader can learn much about them in the article in this issue by Shashat founder Alia Arasoughly. As a teaching tool, the bibliography is excellent. The book is available as an open access pdf, thanks to NYU Abu Dhabi and Tufts University. Unfortunately, the filmography lacks information on the availability of the hundred or so films listed.

In many ways, this book opens up new paths. The emphasis on screens both large and small is innovative and bound to become more important as the Internet and the cloud provide opportunities for Gazans to break out of the blockade, at least in cyberspace. Above all, the book’s contributors argue successfully for new visions of Gaza, ones not defined solely by images of destruction but instead offering steadfast hope, resilient humor, and a firm attachment to place.