A chronicle of forgotten lives

A woman plays the cello in front of the rubble of a destroyed building

Karma Khaial plays the cello in the new documentary Gaza.

Andrew McConnell

The impossibility of forging a normal life under constant siege underpins an extraordinary new documentary film.

Gaza, by directors Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, chronicles the dreams, hopes, frustrations and despair of Palestinians in Gaza over a five-year period.

But this is not a political film. The directors wanted to show the universality of their protagonists’ dreams as they go about their daily lives under circumstances that are anything but ordinary.

“There is no agenda at play here. That’s not the point of what we set out to do,” Keane told The Electronic Intifada. “We are basically a couple of filmmakers who are interested in humanitarian and human rights issues. That’s the basis on which we made this film.”

The “absolute goal” was to highlight the tragedy of Gaza, where two million Palestinians are being collectively punished, Keane said.

The film’s unique vantage point was also its weakness, at least initially. According to Keane, the biggest obstacle they faced was in securing funding. Few people wanted to put money into a film that looked at the lives of everyday Palestinians in a tiny strip of land that the United Nations has said could become “unlivable” by 2020.

Stories worth telling

By focusing on five main characters with varied backgrounds and family histories, Keane and McConnell paint a compelling picture of a people seemingly abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the world, whose lives have been deeply scarred by occupation and conflict.

“This film was all about ordinary people,” Keane said. “The hardest thing we had to do was convince them that their stories were worth telling. They didn’t think anyone would be interested in their humble lives. But we wanted to show that these people were gorgeous, open and friendly. Hopefully, the film shows what Gaza could be, a beautiful place on the Mediterranean Sea.”

A young student called Karma Khaial, 19, speaks in English about her dream of studying international law overseas. But with hardly any travel permits issued by Israel to Palestinians in Gaza, her prospects of being able to travel are very slim.

She wants to help her people get through the current crisis, perhaps by working with a humanitarian organization in Gaza, she tells the filmmakers.

A talented musician, Karma hardly ever pursues her passion anymore, because, she told the filmmakers, it reminds her too much of war and conflict. In a striking scene, she plays the cello outside a bombed-out building.

“The only thing people from outside countries give us is sympathy and it bothers me so much,” she says in the film. “Whenever I stand and breathe the air of the sea, I can breathe freedom … But at the same time, the sea is a reminder of our miserable reality. It’s closed off. There is an invisible border. It’s torture.”

Karma’s mother, Manal, fondly remembers a time when Gaza was a cosmopolitan and bustling place full of hope and joy. Now Manal, whose family hails from Jerusalem, worries constantly about bringing up her family in such a gruelling place.

Ahmed Abu Alqoraan, 18, lives in a refugee camp not far from Manal and Karma’s home. From a family of fishers, he dreams of owning a big boat despite Israel prohibiting vessels from venturing much more than three nautical miles from Gaza’s shoreline.

He sometimes sleeps by the sea to escape overcrowding in the camp, home to 21,000 refugees who were forced from villages in what is now Israel during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Humor and harassment

Deprivation and fear of an uncertain future have not wiped out all humor. Taxi driver Ahmed enjoys a good laugh with some of his customers as he drives them around the tiny strip of land.

A teacher, a student and a barber share their dreams with Ahmed, showing the resilience and strength of people who are all too often dehumanized or seen as mere statistics in Western media.

Yet the siege and the threat of conflict loom over all their stories.

“Can you imagine this many people living in such a small place?” asks Ahmed. “Most of the people here are ordinary, just like me. They want to be left alone to live their lives. We want peace. We just want a normal life.”

Men idle away their time by playing backgammon all day because of the high level of unemployment in Gaza.

Sari Ibrahim, injured for life by Israeli bullets, channels his anger into rap music in a recording studio. The young man believes his thoughts and words are stronger than the weaponry which scarred him.

“I was only 16 when I was shot. I was just a child. They left me on the ground for four hours,” Ibrahim says in the film.

“While I was there, they shot me three times. I was lying in the mud and dirt. They asked me if I could stand up. I said no. That’s when they shot me again in the chest. The bullet went very close to my heart.”

The film grows increasingly tense as it progresses, culminating with the Great March of Return protests along the Gaza-Israel boundary in 2018. The footage shows the terrible conditions that medics have to work under at the weekly demonstrations, the chronic lack of medical supplies, the 16-hour days.

“In Gaza, people never know what will happen in the next five minutes,” a middle-aged man says in the film. “We live in constant fear in our society.”

The filmmakers had their own share of hardship while working on the project. They were questioned and harassed by Israeli soldiers at Erez checkpoint on Gaza’s northern boundary whenever they went back.

On their second day into a four-week shoot last year, McConnell and his driver, who had been filming near the Gaza-Israel boundary, were picked up by Hamas security forces, who confiscated their equipment. Three crew members, all Irish nationals, were placed under house arrest for three days while McConnell and the driver were questioned.

“We didn’t know what had happened to them,” Keane recalled. “They were missing for 12 hours. They were interrogated quite heavily and let out late that night. We were then put under house arrest for three days while they were dragged back in on three different occasions. We thought we would be driven to the border and just told to leave, but we managed to convince them to give us back the kit.”

That at least allowed them to finish shooting. And the result is a film that brings home as rarely before the reality of life in Gaza in all its tragic complexity.

Ciaran Tierney is an award winning blogger and a former newspaper journalist. Find him on Facebook or Twitter or visit his website.