Only two English-language journalists reported from Gaza as it suffered an all-out attack from Israel in late 2008 and early 2009. The War Around Us is a powerful, deeply moving new documentary through the eyes of these two reporters, Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros.
Directed by Abdallah Omeish (whose best-known film is Occupation 101), The War Around Us is just 75 minutes long. But that’s enough. Tightly focused and intentionally restricted in its scope and aims, it follows in chronological order the course of the conflict, intercut with post facto interviews with Mohyeldin and Tadros. At the time both were reporting for Al Jazeera English. Mohyeldin was based in Gaza, but Tadros was there on an assignment to cover reactions to the election of US President Barack Obama.
With apparently free access to Al Jazeera footage of the attack, as well as images from the Palestinian news agency Ramattan, the film is extremely graphic and disturbing. Scenes include that of a mother and her two dead children lying side-by-side on a hospital floor; another man screaming with grief as the body of his little girl flops on a blanket; young men lying in the courtyard of a police station hit by Israeli air strikes, each with one hand raised as they say the final prayers of the dying. A victim of the horrific burns inflicted by illegal white phosphorous munitions (made in the US, fired by the Israeli military) lies in a hospital bed; huge pools of blood lie clotting on the steps of a school in Jabaliya refugee camp run by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).
Less graphic but equally devastating is the interview footage. Rima, a beautiful and intensely dignified young mother, tells Tadros how her children no longer say they are afraid of dying — they just want to make sure that they die along with her so they’re not left alone. John Ging, then a leading figure in UNRWA, speaks with icy fury as desperately-needed food supplies burn behind him. And 16-year-old Ahmad Samouni’s face writhes in pain as he describes lying for days surrounded by the bodies of his family, waiting for the Israeli army to allow ambulances to fetch him.
Many viewers are perhaps now inured to the kind of violence we regularly see on YouTube and activist media, but to watch news media footage — where cameramen have often risked their lives to chase the most graphic images, and which has been edited and soundtracked for intensity and impact — for over an hour is hard to stomach, even now.
It is, then, something of a relief that the film intercuts the material from the attack on Gaza with extended interviews with Mohyeldin and Tadros. They reflect on the roles and responsibilities of journalists in such a situation, on their “anger” at finding that they were the only mainstream Western journalists reporting from inside Gaza, and on the personal impacts of covering such a horrific story.
“Where was the outrage?”
Mohyeldin, already a seasoned conflict reporter when he was posted to Gaza, is the more political one in his comments. He is patently furious at the Western media for their failure to adequately deliver to their audiences the truth of what he calls in the film “a story of great shame to humanity.” American and British news channels, he says, “neglected the story and then had the audacity to question the only journalists on the ground … they tried to spin it in a way that would marginalize or diminish what was happening.” He condemns the “silence of the international community. Where was the outrage?”
Tadros’s comments are more personal. A newcomer to frontline reporting, she is frank in saying that she will never put herself in that position again. Obviously hugely affected by the mothers and children she interviewed — in their homes and hospital beds — she recounts how, coming home to London after the attacks, she couldn’t hold her one-year-old nephew because she imagined blood seeping through his clothes. She also describes vividly the difficulty of facing death day after day, not from one’s own perspective, but from that of the family, thousands of miles away, who are powerless to help.
Tadros admits that during the attacks, Mohyeldin found her to be a “princess.” But behind-the-scenes footage shows a drained, haggard woman working 19 hours a day, snatching sleep on an office floor, desperate to achieve her role of showing the human impacts of a conflict which much of world was seeing only from Western reports in southern Israel or the insidious lies of Mark Regev and Avital Leibovich, chief mouthpieces for the Israeli government and military.
Ayman Mohyeldin, in a question and answer session following a screening of the film in Amman, acknowledged criticism of the documentary for its focus on two mainstream journalists, rather than telling the story from a Palestinian perspective. Although Mohyeldin has a Palestinian mother, he doesn’t labor this as a claim to authenticity. Instead, he insists that the film has a very specific aim — to speak to Western audiences, to use himself and Tadros, two Western journalists of Arab origin, as a bridge to the sympathies of Western viewers, and to “make people question their own media for not telling [the truth about the attacks].”
Ultimately, The War Around Us is a damning critique — from within the industry — of the Western media’s reporting of Palestine, as well as a powerful tool in the hands of Palestine solidarity campaigners. There is no way to walk away from this film not feeling angry and deeply distressed, but also with a visceral and fundamental grasp on the depth of Israel’s denial of the Palestinian right not only to life and liberty but, in Ayman Mohyeldin’s words, “of the right to aspire.”
For details of future screenings of The War Around Us, see http://thewararoundus.com.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.