James Longley's Gaza Strip is a 74-minute documentary filmed between January and April 2001, a period that stretches from four months after the beginning of the Second Palestinian Intifada -- immediately preceding the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel's prime minister -- up to the end of Sharon's third month in office.
"I made this film," Longley notes in the director's commentary that accompanies the very highly recommended DVD version, "to satisfy my own curiosity about what was happening in the Gaza Strip since I found that it was very difficult to find information in the mainstream media and get a detailed look at what was going on, what people there were like, what they were thinking about."
Longley studied film in the United States and Russia. He was awarded a Student Academy Award for a short 1994 documentary, "Portrait of Boy with Dog," about a boy in a Moscow orphanage. Last year, Longley returned his award in protest following the Academy's prejudice against the Palestinian film Divine Intervention.
Gaza Strip centers around another boy, Mohammed Hejazi, a 13-year-old who lives in Gaza City and works as a paper boy. Longley first met Hejazi at the Karni Crossing, an Israeli-controlled border between the northern part of Gaza and Israel proper, the site of regular stone-throwing clashes between Palestinian children and the Israeli military.
Typically, 50-60 kids go once a week to throw stones in what is primarily a symbolic gesture due to a murderous geography that places the Israeli checkpoint temptingly out of stone-throwing reach but well within rifle range of the Israeli soldiers stationed there. The casualties among children, confirmed by human rights organisations, have been high, despite no credible threat to the soldiers. Longley had read of these young kids in a New York Times article and sought them out as documentary subjects. "They're not really doing anything effective against the occupation and they know this," says Longley, "but they are resisting it, in their own way."
The cheeky Hejazi is not representative of other Palestinian kids his age in that he is a high school dropout whereas Palestinian families typically place a high priority on education. Indeed, Mohammed's elder brother ranked second academically in his age range in all of Gaza and all his other school age siblings were doing very well. But his disassociative outlook on life and the survival humor that he employs to overcome his desperate situation speaks of every one of Gaza's children. All children dream and imagine. In war, children dream of liberating their land and imagine lives outside the oppressive confines of their life. Mohammed is such a dreamer, incredibly articulate for his age.
Gaza Strip has no narration in the cinema verite tradition of realism, presenting commentary from Mohammed and others as is, with easy-to-read subtitles for non-Arabic speakers. Time after time in the documentary, Palestinians are given ample space to express their shockingly down-to-earth opinions.
Against a background of donkey carts and bogged-down cars struggling along Gaza's beach to circumvent Israeli checkpoints in the ongoing struggle to maintain a normal life -- no matter what -- Longley presents vox pop commentaries from a situationally 'democratic' trudging line of Palestinians from all walks of life, making their way along the shore. Scenes like this are a punch in the stomach, undeniably bringing home the central fact of life under occupation -- it is not only Palestinian militants that the on-the-ground mechanisms of occupation target, but every Palestinian. The common sense apparent in the complaints of all reveals the strong grounding that conflict brings to people that must live in it, as well as a desperately-needed antidote to the impression left by images of Palestinian violence and demonstrations that disproportionately fill our television screens.
This same space is given in the aftermath of the death of a child who picked up a disguised explosive device, left behind by an Israeli tank. Similarly, we are forced to confront the unquestionable normality of parents and children in the disturbing medical aftermath of an Israeli deployment of nerve gas against Palestinian civilians. This last point underlines why this documentary meets a critical need. "It was strange to me," says Longley, "that this particular incident never made it out into the mainstream media, especially in the US." On 12 February 2001, following an Israeli attack involving a gas with characteristics clearly different from and much more severe than the ubiquitous teargas, 50 people were brought with severe reactions to Amal and Nasser hospitals in Khan Younis. The following week saw this figure rise to a total of 200 people, still suffering ill effects from the gas, including violent and painful convulsions.
Evenly balanced between scenes of individual tragedy and vistas of mass suffering, Gaza Strip is a compelling portrait of human life during wartime, a powerful tool for explaining in simple terms what is wrong with the Israeli or indeed any long term foreign military occupation, and a call for us to pay attention to situations our governments underwrite that generate deserved hostility from our other neighbours on this planet.
The documentary works to dispel a number of pervasive myths about the conflict that have rendered Palestinians into 2D in the world's media: that Palestinian parents permit their children to participate in stone throwing or even indeed know of their participation; that all Palestinians stand behind Yasser Arafat; that Israel's use of military force is proportional or even aimed at actual Palestinian combatants; and that the Palestinian people do not want peace with Israelis. All these notions are exposed as patent nonsense in Gaza Strip, where you meet Joe and Jane Palestinian for yourself.
There is much more that could be said about this simple but powerful documentary but -- in brief -- this testimony is sorely needed and deserves as wide an audience as possible. Do your part for this excellent independent film. Buy it now and give a copy to everyone you know.
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