At a breaking point: “Young Freud in Gaza”

A scene from Young Freud in Gaza.


In addition to a long list of films exploring themes of social injustice and conflict, Swedish filmmaker PeÅ Holmquist has directed several on Palestine. Young Freud in Gaza (2008), his most recent documentary on the subject, enters the recesses of Palestinian society as it copes with life under Israeli occupation. Directed with Holmquist’s longtime partner, Beirut-born Armenian filmmaker and journalist Suzanne Khardalian, the 60-minute film follows Ayed, a 27-year-old psychologist working for the Palestinian Authority’s Clinic for Mental Health in northern Gaza. The only field psychologist in the area, Ayed frequently makes home visits, treating patients of all ages, from diverse backgrounds. 

The film chronicles his consultations from 2006 to 2008, as the psychologist and his community are surrounded by crippling economic sanctions, violent clashes between the Hamas and Fatah factions and frequent Israeli missile attacks. The film not only accompanies Ayed as he administers counseling sessions but also when he is at home with family and friends. A looming element that is often present is the outcome of Hamas’ win of the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and the subsequent changes Gaza is made to endure. This has a profound affect on Ayed and his patients as they experience significant backlash from Israel and witness growing internal political divisions. In the span of time covered in the film, Gaza’s state plummets, as its civil infrastructure is debilitated and violence increases. 

Despite this grim reality, Ayed remains dedicated to treating his patients and works to gain their trust from the onset. Even the most guarded and skeptical individuals, such as maimed Hamas fighters, put their faith in him once their treatment begins. From chronic depression to eating disorders, Ayed’s patients experience a range of mental health issues. A common variable in their stories, however, is the Israeli occupation and the significant physical and psychological damage it has caused to Gaza’s residents. 

Abed is a young man who was severely injured in a failed suicide mission in Israel. Suffering from partial memory loss, Ayed attempts to help him remember the events of that day as a way of relieving stress and alleviating physical pain. As his story unfolds, we learn that he barely escaped death after being chased by Israeli authorities. The details of Abed’s situation are later revealed when he describes having been paid to execute the foiled attack. Out of desperation and the prospect of providing momentary financial stability for his impoverished family, Abed decided to work with militants and pursued the assignment. This speaks volumes about the dire circumstances experienced in Gaza and the wide-scale violence instigated by the occupation. 

Another case involves Inas, a teenage girl who is severely traumatized by a childhood experience. Having come upon the body of a classmate killed by Israeli fire near her school, Inas has suffered from depression and anxiety throughout her adolescence. Ayed attempts to counsel Inas on dealing with her mental state, while struggling to involve her parents who have grown impatient with the lengthy road to recovery. Some of the most telling scenes of the film occur when he lectures Inas’ parents on the importance of visiting the clinic for further treatment. Stern and unyielding, he admonishes them for their lack of commitment and the effects it has on Inas. It is here that we witness one of the many challenges facing a psychologist working with few resources and little community support. As Ayed confirms, Gaza is badly in need of “a million psychologists.”

Often frustrated and let down, he eventually finds himself torn between continuing his practice and enduring its psychological toll or resigning from his position in search of peace of mind. 

Young Freud in Gaza provides a much-needed look into a community struggling to survive amidst abject poverty and brutal assaults as it resides under the shadows of collective trauma. With the international blockade leaving the territory virtually cut off from the outside world, the documentary not only offers a glimpse into the private lives of Palestinians in Gaza, it serves as an important historical record. 

Grounded in the conversations that occur during Ayed’s counseling sessions, the film works to draw the viewer in as though they are witnessing these exchanges firsthand. The directors are physically absent as Ayed narrates scenes, conducts interviews or goes about his day. During some of his most vulnerable moments, namely when he begins to doubt the effectiveness of his work amidst deadly factional violence, the camera serves as a confessional of sorts. 

This intimate setting is also created by the camera’s close proximity to its subjects and the capturing of the interior spaces of daily life. From Ayed’s medical office to modest dwellings in refugee camps, the viewer is brought into Gaza’s internal realms. Yet at all times the film evokes the external forces that deeply impact residents. Shots of a hovering Israeli surveillance blimp, news footage and scenes showing outbreaks of fighting among Hamas and Fatah forces serve as constant reminders of the grave environment that lies just beyond the safe haven Ayed creates for his patients. 

Although informative and engaging, Young Freud in Gaza is perhaps best understood by viewers familiar with the contemporary history of Palestine and the Israeli occupation. Lacking an overall historical context, the film assumes the viewer possess some knowledge of recent events in the occupied territories, labeling certain scenes with simple titles and little explanation. Clues to the details of these events can be found mainly when Ayed references them in passing, such as when he explains to a patient that the clinic’s shortage of antidepressants is a result of the Israeli-led blockade. More details on the cause of the confrontations between factions, which dominate the film, would provide a more comprehensive approach to representing the situation in Gaza during that time. 

Lengthier accounts of each patient’s treatment and their progress would have also enhanced the film, as their stories are seemingly incomplete. In the end one is left wishing that the filmmakers would have incorporated more footage so as to expand their narrative. Given Israel’s vicious attack on Gaza earlier this year, however, Young Freud in Gaza nevertheless speaks with a profound urgency. 

Maymanah Farhat specializes in modern and contemporary Arab art. Her collected writings can be viewed online at http://maymanahfarhat.wordpress.com.