For a good 30 minutes, you might believe Gaza is an okay place to live. Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell‘s film about the Palestinian territory introduces us to one person after another who is leading a normal life. We see them in beautiful, tranquil settings that could be used in a tourism ad. The Gaza Strip is bordered on one side by the Mediterranean Sea, after all, and so there are long stretches of beaches. Gradually, we learn through the series of character portraits that Gaza it’s everyday problems, from electricity shortages to… well, the fact that residents are basically living in a giant prison that they’re born into.
At that half-hour mark, the documentary, which is simply and broadly titled Gaza, the tone changes drastically. Keane and McConnell bring us to the Israeli border and the “March of Return” protests that began in March 2018. The Palestinians burn tires and throw rocks. Israeli soldiers shoot back. The filmmakers are right in the thick of the action, avoiding fire and following bodies on stretchers to the paramedics on the scene. Returning shortly to the regular-folk character studies, we learn about the fate of men who are injured in conflicts like those protests and about the financial debt that most Gazans have.
We continue to observe the lives of people who are getting on the best they can. A well-rounded teenage girl does well in school, plays the cello to express herself, and does a bit of modeling as part of an effort to show the world how pretty and modern the women of Gaza are. But she has dreams of leaving, studying abroad, experiencing what other teenagers in other countries experience. We’re constantly reminded of the blockade that keeps these people confined. Fishermen complain about the limited range for their boats and the harassment of the Israeli naval ships. Characters admit everyone just tries to forget their current situation and make the best of it. Then we see refugees in camps where the people “are living in with so much misery that they no longer even realize the extent of their misery.”
Again, the documentary seems to be intent on showing us the normalcy of life in Gaza and the innocent people — business owners, artists, the 40 children born to one man — who do want independence and freedom but also don’t want any more trouble and certainly not another war, the last of which was just four years earlier — there’s mention again and again that even very young children have already lived through two wars. And then the film goes back to the border and the protests, which are escalating. We meet and follow the increasingly busy job of an EMT in one of the many ambulances stationed around the bloody demonstration. And then, life in Gaza turns really scary as the Israeli airstrikes begin.
I hate to say that the unfolded structure of Gaza is brilliant because it’s also obviously very tragic. In those final moments, the film shows us injured children screaming, parents of dead children crying, buildings turned to rubble, neighborhoods destroyed. The filmmakers witness many of the bombings firsthand, their cameras shaking as we’re brought to the forefront of fear during these times where anything can happen at any time. And certainly, the structure of the documentary is, to a degree, unintended. Keane and McConnell wanted to show us the everyday lives of people in Gaza, and sadly yet unsurprisingly that wound up including the extreme ends of the spectrum of what “everyday” means in the territory.
Gaza received a good amount of attention during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered and competed in the World Cinema – Documentary program. One of the film’s subjects (actor/playwright/singer Ali Abu Yaseen) and its production manager (Fady Hossam) had hoped to leave Gaza and make it to Park City for the first screening, or at least by the time of the last screening, and their efforts were documented in a vlog called “The Long Road to Sundance.” They were to travel first to Cairo for a visa and then fly to Utah. But they weren’t able to get out.
Again, it’s good for the film that such misfortune occurred, even if it’s terrible to recognize real-world adversities and disasters as favorable for the sake of the dramas of cinema and filmmaking narratives. It’s a fitting side story for this documentary, though, that sort of plays with the audience’s expectations about Gaza and its people. Surely there were and will continue to be viewers who attend and tune in to Gaza for something harrowing only to experience something initially familiar that turns heartbreaking again. They need to see it all.