What role can music play in confronting the Israeli occupation? This is the question posed yet not definitively answered in Helena Cotinier and Pierre-Nicolas Durand’s documentary It’s Not a Gun, which follows Palestinian musician Ramzi Aburedwan as he realizes his dream of establishing a music education school in Palestine as part of his al-Kamandjati (meaning “the violinist”) project.
Ramzi, who grew up in Ramallah’s Al-Amari refugee camp, says, “I spent my whole childhood during the first intifada throwing stones. And then, by chance, I had the [opportunity] to play music.” While Ramzi — unlike some of the European musicians who join him for a musical tour of the occupied Palestinian territories each summer — holds no illusions about the limits of artistic expression, he would at least like to afford Palestinian children the chance to experience the joy of music.
On the first day of the initial music workshop he held with young Palestinian kids, they drew pictures of what they saw around them — tanks, Kalashnikovs, keffiyehs, and other symbols of the conflict and the resistance. After two days of being exposed to music, while those images still appeared in the children’s drawings, this time they were accompanied by pictures of musical instruments.
While Aburedwan’s project is still too young to be able to measure its impact on Palestinian youth, we do see 14-year-old Oday from Fuwwar refugee camp go from singing in a Hebron classroom to a stage in Paris where he receives a standing ovation — all in the course of a year.
It is clear in the film that there is not much opportunity because of the political and economic situation in occupied Palestine for the talents of children like Oday to be nurtured. Not only are there obstacles because occupation but there are hindrances in Palestinian society as well. In Hebron, the enthusiastic clapping of a large group of children as they listen to a live performance of a song made famous by the Lebanese singer Fairuz is interrupted by an elder who yells, “Stop, it is forbidden! You’re Muslim children,” prompting the children to file out of the room.
Most interesting in the film are the debates amongst the musicians and those around them regarding the role music plays during conflict. When touring the wall in Qalqiliya, European and Palestinian musicians alike are greeted with a cold serving of reality. “What is music going to do against that?” one of the Palestinian musicians asks another regarding the wall. “Nothing. Music is not made to be against that,” is the answer.
In another exchange while one of the summer delegations is in Gaza, a Palestinian musician asks his European counterpart, “If there was blood in the streets, do you think children would come to play bass or would they still think about the previous day?” The response: “[If] soldiers are stealing their childhood then let us try to give them what they should have.”
Another European musician, named Julien, says that he doesn’t pretend that music will change the lives of the children but hopes that it will touch them. It’s safe to say his hope is affirmed when the musicians perform at Shufat refugee camp, where a soft-spoken young girl says this was the first time she’s seen such a concert. “They gave the best of themselves. They didn’t even take a breath,” she says of the musicians. However, when asked if she thinks she could become a musician, she replies, “I don’t think I could because music is far away from the camp. Those who play music, I don’t know where they are.”
Though they might not hold all the answers, Aburedwan and his comrades are certainly worthy of our admiration. The film poignantly concludes with scenes of young Oday singing for audiences in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and finally, Hebron, where Israeli soldiers look on from sniper’s positions above as Oday defiantly sings on.
It’s Not a Gun screens tonight at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival.
Maureen Clare Murphy is Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada.