'Gaza' documentary tells of broken dreams and shattered lives

We talk to ‘Gaza’ directors about capturing the anxiety, fears and aspirations of people living in the city over a short, but deeply devastating time

A scene featuring Karma, who plays the cello and dreams of studying law and politics to help her people. Courtesy Real Films
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A painfully beautiful and tragic documentary entitled Gaza, by Irish directors Andrew McConnell and Garry Keane, opens with a young, bright-eyed boy named Ahmed playing with his friends and siblings – they're jumping in the water from a stand-up paddleboard, laughing, being ordinary kids. From a family of fishermen, Ahmed says he was born by the sea, lives by the sea and will die by the sea. That was in 2014.

One of the film's closing scenes shows Ahmed, now 18, along the Gaza border with Israel on one of the weekly Friday demonstrations that are part of the Great March of Return. The shine in his eye and his innocence have gone. Tear gas and ammunition rounds cause him to flinch and take cover, as Israeli soldiers fire on the hundreds of protesters running for safety. It's a powerful transposition that has as much impact on the gut as the heart.

"We all thought it's quite a profound moment," says McConnell. "Here we have this young lad, when you see him he has a captivating young face, incredibly innocent-looking, with those big eyes. And he just dreamed of the sea, that's all he wants: to be a fisherman and stay by the sea with his brothers, a very simple dream – but in a place like Gaza even that seems unattainable."

Capturing footage over four years helps tell a story

Gaza was filmed intermittently over four years, due to changes of plans and gaps in funding. This has made it more powerful as it allowed McConnell and Keane to chronicle several characters' lives over a short, but deeply devastating period: 2014-2018. Israel's third major military assault in recent years took place during this four-year period, alongside the continuation of Israel's blockade, now in its 12th year, which has crippled Gaza's economy and infrastructure.

Moments from the film including the opening sequence showing Ahmed and his friends playing at sea. Real Film; Filmoption International. Courtesy Fine Point Films
Moments from the film including the opening sequence showing Ahmed and his friends playing at sea. Real Film; Filmoption International. Courtesy Fine Point Films

"When you see Ahmed by the border, in many ways he represents much of the youth of Gaza: they have so much potential and yet where do they end up? Many end up at the border because they see no possibility, no potential of any future for themselves, says McConnell. "They're prepared to risk their lives at this border fence. It's tragic and I think Ahmed encapsulates this whole situation."

Revealing personal perspectives that cross the generations

The film is a series of moving character vignettes, set against the deeply sobering backdrop of daily life in this tiny, impoverished enclave of more than two million people. Children, parents and grandparents share its narrative in their own extremely articulate, poignant and personal voices. This gives Gaza personal perspectives that cross the generations, revealing happier, freer and more liberal times, along with feelings of constant fear and anxiety, guilt and utter despair – as well as hope for a "normal" future.
"Certainly there's a hopelessness from young to old," and a sense of "complete abandonment", McConnell says. He notes a tangible change from the early days of the blockade to the present. "They saw the blockade as something they could beat and it galvanised them a lot. Now the tunnels have gone and the blockade is 12 years old – they realise it's not going away. There's a slow strangulation on Gaza and you feel it, it's palpable on the ground."

Another incredibly impressive character in Gaza is Karma, an articulate and sensitive young woman who plays the cello and dreams of being able to study international law and political science to "help our people". In one scene she walks along Gaza's seafront. She describes how the sea is comforting to her, providing a sense of freedom, "but at the same time," she says, "we can see the vastness of it, but to us, it's closed. It's torture."

"Karma is an incredible young woman," McConnell says. "A lot of the dialogue you hear from her we recorded when she was 14 years old and, at that age, to be so articulate and so insightful about her situation and to express her feelings in such a way, it was magic for us in terms of filmmaking. She is now studying international law at university, in her second year. For me, Karma represents the future for Palestine ­– if allowed to fulfil her potential there's nothing she couldn't do. Whether or not that will be the case, it's hard to say."

McConnell says Karma is trying, with help, to get a scholarship to study abroad: "But if she stays in Gaza she will never reach her full potential," he says.

What the directors learnt from filming in Palestine

One of the most disturbing realities of being a journalist or a filmmaker in Palestine is a self-consciousness about your ability to move (relatively) ­freely to places other Palestinians cannot due to restrictions imposed on them by Israel. In Gaza, the filmmakers says this feeling is particularly acute. "The feeling is definitely guilt," McConnell says.

“You breeze in there, you hang out for a while, day in day out, and ask them intimate questions to try to really know them – and then you say: ‘Right, goodbye, we’re leaving tomorrow’. The toughest part about working in Gaza is you have this freedom of movement which they don’t have, of getting on a plane and flying out, which we all take for granted.”

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 29: Co-directors Andrew McConnell (L) and Gary Keane attend the "Gaza" Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival at Park Avenue Theater on January 29, 2019 in Park City, Utah.   Cassidy Sparrow/Getty Images/AFP
Co-directors Andrew McConnell, left, and Gary Keane attend the 'Gaza' Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. AFP

McConnell says that the logistics of shooting the film were quite straightforward. With Israeli-issued press passes they were allowed to come and go, and that “during normal times” moving around was simple. He says that “over the years Hamas have become more paranoid of who’s on the ground, and maybe justifiably so,” alluding to an Israeli commando unit being uncovered at a Hamas checkpoint last November.

Having a camera out in sensitive areas and neighbourhoods can get you into trouble, and during his last visit McConnell was arrested, questioned for hours, placed under house arrest for three days and had his equipment confiscated. In the end he was released and they got everything back, but, he says, "they're dealing with a certain situation, so you just don't know what's going on."

McConnell says that in today's media climate, documentary filmmaking is more urgent than ever. "You need people who are prepared to spend time, years, telling you their story and it's not easy, not everyone is prepared to do that." But, he says, the public has an appetite to be properly informed.

Spreading awareness about what is happening

And there is certainly an appetite out there for Gaza. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, it has been screened in Toronto, Mexico, Los Angeles, London, and will be part of the revived London Palestine Film Festival taking place in the UK capital on Friday, November 15 to Saturday, November 30. It will also soon be shown inside Israel – at the Jaffa Med Film Festival on Saturday, November 2 – and, several weeks later, it will be "brought home" to Gaza, where those featured in it will see it for the first time. 

Its success has made its directors proud, as the whole point behind making the documentary was to "increase awareness," McConnell says. They are off to several screenings in the days ahead in New York, Boston and at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "So much of what is happening in Palestine-Israel can be traced back to America, and I think there's a lack of in-depth information around Palestine, Gaza and perhaps the Middle East in general inside America. We go to America and have people come up to us afterwards and tell us that they had no idea this was the situation, that this is on-going and that there's the blockade."

Is he hopeful that things in Gaza can change? "There's a lack of political will," he says. "The years go by and turn into decades and it's just pathetic. What do you say? I think you just shake your head. But you don't give up. I think we have to keep applying the pressure on political will and then things can happen quickly."

As an Irishman, who witnessed the unexpected in his homeland through the Good Friday Agreement, McConnell knows that seemingly intractable realities can be transformed when wills align.