Naila Ayesh is an activist who played an instrumental role in the First Palestinian Intifada, an uprising that was formed in 1987 to end to oppressive Israeli occupation in Gaza through education and peaceful protest. Her work was integral in forcing Israel and the rest of the world to recognize Palestine’s right to self-determination, but it came at a great personal cost to Ayesh and her family. Julia Bacha’s Naila and the Uprising tells Ayesh’s story, from her childhood growing up in a land ravaged by bombs to her current role as a spokesperson for Palestinian freedom.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel took over Gaza and ruled over one million Palestinians with an iron fist. Arabs were treated as second class citizens under a brutal militaristic regime that sought to control every aspect of their lives — so much so that they were even forbidden from growing and selling vegetables without a permit. As a child growing up during the conflict, Ayesh’s life changed forever when her home was demolished by bombs. In the film, she recalls returning home from school one afternoon to find her father standing next to the rubble, heartbroken. That’s when she decided that the only solution was to “end the occupation.”
When she came of age, Ayesh opted to leave her homeland and study abroad in Bulgaria. She wanted to learn freely away from a curriculum determined by Israel’s agenda. This is where she met like-minded activist and future husband Jamal Zakout; they believed it was their destiny to resist the occupation together, and upon returning to Palestine, that’s what they set out to do. However, shortly into their marriage, the couple experienced tragedy when Ayesh was captured by the Israeli secret service, while pregnant, and held captive for days tied to a chair. She miscarried during her interrogation, but the story made national headlines and encouraged more women to join their movement.
The work of Ayesh, Zakout, and others led to the formation of the United National Leadership in 1988, which saw leaders form a coalition and initiate a grassroots movement which supported the uprising. The UNL encouraged citizens not to pay taxes to Israel, but this ultimately led to mass arrests and citizens being deported, including Zakout. When he was deported, his wife was pregnant and set to enter labor. The family’s luck continued to worsen after the child’s birth, however, as Ayesh was arrested by Israeli soldiers and taken to prison in the middle of the night, with no one else around to take care of the baby.
Upon being released from prison, Ayesh with her mission continued to protest the Israeli regime along with women who found themselves occupying political positions because the men were either imprisoned or exiled. Along with other members of a clandestine movement experiencing similar hardships, she was driven by the will to free her country and reunite her family. Together, they caught the attention of the world, and, eventually, Ayesh was reunited with her family.
This isn’t just Ayesh’s story, as she’s merely one example of countless women who’ve played their own significant part fighting against imposed, unwanted rule. Maybe their efforts didn’t bring about the solution they desired, but their story is as inspirational a tale as you’re likely to see, and their activism helped raise awareness towards a conflict that still rages on. At the heart of the documentary is a story of love and sacrifice. Ayesh risked everything to overcome challenging — and often cruel — obstacles to just to be with her family. But for them to be truly free, she understood the importance of fighting for a brighter future.
The film uses archival footage and interviews to document Ayesh’s story and the history of the uprising, but the standout moments are told through stunning animation scenes to retell unrecorded moments. These add an extra emotional dimension to proceedings, evoking a sense of tragedy and loss. But it’s not all doom and gloom. If anything, the doc serves to remind us that, even during the darkest of times, the human spirit is hard to crush.