Gaza (2019) Review & Interview with Director Andrew McConnell
Directed by Andrew McConnell and Garry Keane
Gaza. What do you know about Gaza? Or perhaps the question should be, what do you think you know about Gaza? An influx of images appeared on our television sets in 2014 as war waged between Israel and Gaza, killing over 2,000 Palestinians and wounding over 10,000. By comparison, just over 60 Israeli’s were killed. As the news coverage began to slow down, the tragic images may have begun to leave your mind. As the initial shock gave way to complacency and the focus shifted elsewhere, we moved on with our lives. For the many Palestinian’s stuck in the ‘open prison’ of Gaza, that was not an option. Their daily lives went on as the death toll rose. Gaza, directed by Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, is their heart-breaking yet hopeful story.
Keane and McConnell are silent behind the camera at all times. They allow the rich tapestry of characters to speak for themselves, and what a wonderful variety of characters they are. There’s Ahmed, the boy who dreams of becoming a captain of his own fishing vessel (despite the 3-mile limit imposed by Israel and Egypt). 19-year-old Karma who dreams of studying Law or Political science abroad (despite knowing the blockade means her chances are slim). Manal who fondly looks back at the days when Gaza was a progressive and cosmopolitan place (but now laments her choice to bring children into its uncompromisingly brutal environment). Additional stories from taxi drivers, fashion show heads, theatre directors, paramedics and more amplify the vibrant and colourful palette of humanity on the Gaza strip.
Keane and McConnell take care not to spend too long with each story, allowing us just enough time with each to hear their unique take on life in this harsh environment. We are quickly transported to a completely new experience and perspective. This swift interchange between stories serves to remind us that no singular point of view represents the struggle of survival in Gaza. It also hammers home the beautifully poignant, yet much overlooked fact, that these are human-beings. They don’t want war, they don’t want to die, they want to live!
In the final act of the film the reality of life in Gaza becomes almost overwhelmingly devastating. While the inclination to look away is natural, it is so important that we don’t. That such atrocities are committed to our fellow-man is the tragedy of our time. Keane and McConnell should be commended for not salaciously focusing on the trauma of the conflict, preferring to show life in all its unique, yet worn-down brilliance.
This should be compulsory viewing in every school worldwide. Only through humanising this story of inhumanity can the world begin to make things better for the Palestinians suffering on the Gaza strip. If not us, then the future generation. As we see in the film, life isn’t exactly flourishing but it is carrying on. We owe it to the children of Gaza and the memory of those who came before them, to listen to their stories, to make their voices heard and to take action.
Ben Murray sat down with director Andrew McConnell to discuss his experiences.
Andrew, thanks for joining us at FilmBusters today. How did you find your individual stories and was everyone as open to a documentary crew as those who made it into the final cut?
Well, I first went to Gaza in 2010. I’m a photographer originally and I remember reading a story about a group of surfers in Gaza. I’m a surfer myself from the West Coast of Ireland! I thought it was such a surprising story to hear from somewhere you don’t expect it and that drew me there. I spent three or four months there taking photographs, but it wasn’t until 2012 when I met Garry Keane (co-director) and told him about the surfers that the idea of making a film set in Gaza was born.
We didn’t want to just make a film about surfing, we wanted to make a film about the sea, which is such a symbolic feature of Gaza. It’s so surprising considering how walled in they are. So when I returned to Gaza in 2014 I already knew this group of surfers and had met some of the other characters you see in the film already. While I was there war broke out and I was there for the duration. After the war ended I was driving along the coast and I remember looking out to sea. There was this figure, this tiny little dot, standing on a raft. It was little Ahmed. I remember thinking ‘this is interesting, who is this?’. I waited for him to come back in from the sea and suddenly all his brothers appeared from nowhere. Immediately he became someone I had to include.
Gaza generally is quite an easy place to work in terms of access as everybody is very welcoming because they’re so grateful that anyone is paying attention to them.
Was it important to you to show stories of resilience or did you discover that resilience naturally through your time with the people?
No that was definitely our plan from the beginning. Having spent time there I knew how resilient they were but also how incredibly vibrant people are in Gaza. So from the very start we wanted to make a film about them, the ordinary people of Gaza. They have incredible stories to tell even though they don't know it themselves. Each and every one of them is bursting with life which is surprising considering the circumstances they are in.
Were you given unrestricted access to Gaza or where there certain areas that were off-limits and stories that you were prevented from including?
In the early days it was fine. You could go right up to the border in Gaza. I did a photography project focusing on people scavenging for recyclables on the border and I could go there without ever being stopped. But on the last occasion I visited HAMAS had become far more paranoid about foreigners and outsiders. I was actually stopped and all my gear was taken off me and I had to go to the police station. I was first interrogated by one man but that then turned into seven men! I was called a spy at one point which was kind of ridiculous but also intimidating. I was put under house arrest for three days and all our camera gear was taken away. We were worried we would be kicked out but fortunately we got the gear back along with warnings not to go to the border. So things have definitely changed over the years. Actually, a while after that happened, a car was stopped at a HAMAS checkpoint and it turned out to be an Israeli Special Forces unit. There was a big shootout and many were killed on both sides.
Was there a particular point during filming that struck you emotionally or that you found particularly hard to work through?
The war was obviously the most difficult time. I had covered conflict before but I have never seen anything like the 50 Day War in 2014. I wasn’t expecting it at all but when I found myself on the ground there was nothing I could do but cover it, so I covered it extensively. In Gaza you have access to everything. We were dragged to morgues, dragged to funerals and told by the people ‘you have to film this’. So we did. In the edit there was such a huge amount of footage, some much more hard-hitting than what was shown in the film. We found ourselves in morgues with dead children on tables. The decision was made not to include that footage because we felt it was powerful enough without it. There’s a fine line between being too graphic and making a point. We felt we made a point. That’s not to say it would be wrong to show it, but it was the decision we took. It was powerful, but dignified.
What are your hopes for Gaza now and what would you say those outside of the ‘open prison’ can do to help change things?
It's hard to say. I think the problem is there's no political will to change the situation. If there was it could change overnight in Gaza. But right now the UN says Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. Two million people facing that? That’s unacceptable. If we are seeing anything it's that politics has failed Gaza completely. This blockade hasn't worked, it’s inhumane. There are failures on all sides. There is a very urgent impending crisis facing Gaza and it needs to be faced by everybody.
In an environment where much is made of the great waste of men through death or through opportunities - was it hard to find the female perspective?
As a male filmmaker you can struggle in terms of access to women as it’s a conservative society. Obviously you can't really go into people's homes to film women. We were lucky that we found a great family in Karma and her mother Manal who were very receptive to being filmed and spoke very elegantly of the situation. In Karma we found an incredible human being and one of the smartest people I have ever met at that age. Much in the film was shot when she was just 14 years old. She is someone who given half the chance could go very, very far but considering her situation who knows what will become of Karma. Karma represents the future of Palestine. Ida the fashion designer as well was a wonderful woman and a credit to Palestine and Palestinian society.
Finally, it’s a great shame that the Red Carpet Human Rights Film Festival is looking like it won’t be returning. How important are the arts, would you say, for the people in Gaza?
There are so little outlets there to release the pressure and psychological weight that they are under every day that the arts are hugely important. The Red Carpet Festival, which we are trying to get back up and running bytheway, was a great outlet since 2014. It looks like it may not happen but we are crowd funding for it at the moment on gofundme. We are trying to raise £18,000. We’ve had a great reaction so far but we need another push. We can’t overstate how important this is. None of us can imagine what it's like never to have sat in a cinema. It’s something we take for granted. It’s a small thing but it makes a big difference. When your life is so monotonous and your days need to be broken up this is a bright point in the year for the people of Gaza. Previous festivals were standing room only and people are pushed right out the back of the cinema with many, many screenings needed to accommodate them all. Let’s hope we can make it happen. We’d love to bring the film there because they won't get a chance to see it otherwise. We don't want to send it to them to watch on a laptop we want them to be able to sit in a theatre and watch it on the big screen in that great, collective experience.
To donate, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/gaza-red-carpet-festival